Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Networked journalism -- a core component of Web 2.0?

A new buzzword that is all the rage is “networked journalism,” which is a more flexible term than “citizen journalist.” It refers to less formal networks of writers, subject-matter experts and sometimes “professional journalists” working together in blogs, social networks, films, interactive websites, message boards, and other advanced Web operations.

A typical example might be a neighborhood or homeowners association blog. (That's the kind of publisher who believes that all news and all politics are local!) Or perhaps a blog or site for screenwriters and/or independent filmmakers in a metropolitan area. Or perhaps professionals working on a particular technology. Or, a political pressure group. In the 1990s, GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty) had a printed newsletter, The Quill (I was editor for a while), which in may ways was like networked journalism. Sometimes “journals” exist both online and in print, with free print copies paid for by networked businesses as advertisers. Wkipedia has a canonical example of its own, wikinews, here. Wikipedia’s article on Citizen Journalism is here.

One of the best accounts of the flexibility in a networked journalism operation is Dan Poynter’s "Eleven Layers" (in analogy to OSI), here.

Another is this article by Josh Wolf.

Of course, what is controversial is the level or “professionalism” of citizen journalism. A negative view was expressed in Andrew Keen’s recent book “The Cult of the Amateur.” Amateurs typically do not have the formal education specifically in journalism (University of Missouri style) or the press credentials. Access to sensitive areas (generally limited to those with press passes, as in war zones) is limited, and the applicability of shield laws, inconsistent already (the Judith Miller case) is certainly controversial and uncertain. More troubling is the somewhat existential missperception that “ordinary” bloggers are beyond lawsuits for libel, invasion of privacy, or copyright infringement. In fact, the law applies to amateur bloggers in the same way it does to The New York Times, although the practical likelihood of effective litigation is usually very low. The National Writers Union, at least in the go round in 2001, had difficulty getting media perils insurance for amateur writers, especially those that dealt with sensitive issues like GLBT. (I was told by an insurance broker in July 2001 by an insurance broker that I was denied under their plan specifically because of “the controversial nature of your writing.” Well, if it weren’t controversial, it wouldn’t be worth doing!)

There is also controversy over whether “incidental” linking to libelous content can cause a claim, or whether someone hosting comments or blogs of others is responsible for what they say. The general answer seems to be “no” because of Section 230 of the 1996 telecommunications act (the part that the Supreme Court left in place in 1997 when it struck down the Communications Decency Act). There is cause for caution, as this can be tricky (for example, acting in bad faith, or deliberately giving credence to a false defamatory claim of someone else).

Newsassignmentnet has a discussion of these issues here, "The Legal Dos and Do Nots of Networked Journalism". The July 3, 2003 entry on a blog called "Balkanization" by Jack Balkin, "Can Bloggers be sued for libel" starts out with "of course they can" and criticizes Andrew Sullivan for over reliance on a Ninth Circuit opinion talking about Section 230 (above). (Right below that entry is a good discussion of Lawrence v. Texas.)

The legal publishers Pike & Fischer are having some workshops, including one in Washington DC in September, 2007, in which they will, among other topics, cover “Legal Risk Management in the Web 2.0 World” with particular attention to “Citizen Journalism, Libel & Privacy,” including speculative concerns about downstream liability for ISPs or social networking hosts, and “Online Social Networks & Privacy.” The conferences are pricey (as are their legal publications) and seem to be aimed at attorneys and executives. The website is pf.com. This is an old-school legal publishing company, used to being well paid for the professionalism, dealing with the new realities of a world of user generated content.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation discussion of bloggers rights under Section 230 is here. The Apple v. Does case has a bearing on the "bloggers as journalists" issue, EFF writeup here. The master blogger's rights page on EFF is here.

The "blogging policy" concerns for employers that I have discussed earlier (like here) would be mixed with a more conventional "conflict of interest" if a "citizen journalist" works part-time for a small "network" while having a job with a high public profile.

My own effort, right now, with the "blog set" and big master site, does not exactly follow the pattern of networked journalism. Not just yet.

There is a story on p 86 of the August 2007 Wired by Jeff Howe about the Cincinnati Enquirer that shows the benefits of a major Gannett newspaper "converting" to networked journalism with a lot of "citizen input" on its local issues particularly. The story is "Breaking the News: Faced with fewer ads and a dwindling audience, the country's biggest newspaper chain set out to reinvent the business. First step: Put the readers to work." Readers are eager to share the subtle findings they make with their targeted probing of local or niche-like problems. Then "The mandate was simple. Drag a 19th Century industry into the 21st Century without busting the budget or alienating Wall Street." He quotes Linda Parker from the paper in a memo to professional journalists: "Contrary to the fear ripping through newsrooms, citizens don't want your jobs."

Monday, July 30, 2007

Am I still a libertarian, given all of the "irritating truths"?

About a year ago I got a request from a group to contribute an essay on why I became a libertarian. Charles Murray had written a book like that in the 1990s. I did, and found myself going through all of the moral “due diligence” as to whether I really believe libertarianism can address some of the staggering issues that have ganged up on us in the past few years. It is not an easy time to be a libertarian. I wrote the following piece (link), and I must say that the editor, while intrigued, as disturbed by it.

Let me back into my concerns this way, with a personal candor chain. What’s important to me is to achieve a goal (in finding and publishing come publicly relevant truth), following my own golden compass, without having to accept the goals defined by others. In the course of doing so, I hopefully will attract the people that I want in my life. In fact, when I am able to do this, at a certain personal level this works. I do not need to be jealous of anyone, and I have interaction the people that I feel attracted to. But it does shortcircuit the idea of taking responsibility for anyone else based on that person’s need.

Think again about the existential meaning behind the preferences that I sometimes express as a gay male. One paradox is that, in the upward affiliation and feeling of attraction to a male who is more “competitive,” I am in a sense reinforcing the notion that ancestry and procreation really are important functions and generate important personal values, even if I don’t participate directly myself. Instead, I seem to be “judging” whom I think is the most “suitable.” When this is just a private life matter – a private choice – it doesn’t matter, in any sense of how classical liberalism works now. But it does matter as it gets expressed and circulated publicly – in writings, movies, television icons, and anecdotes, and in the ability to make altruistic commitments to others. This is just not as private as we used to pretend. This “private judgmentalism” puts a lot of straight men on edge. It sets up a kind of "aesthetic fundamentalism," that, whatever its origins in personal freedom, can marginalize people as surely as does a lot of fundamentalist religion, and can set up existential traps questioning the motives of people in pursuing their own values and refusing to compete in more conventional ways when given the chance.

I did, in the late nineties, with the first two books, generate a lot of discussion of fundamental rights, and categories of individual rights. We talked about a “Bill of Rights 2”. But, of course, 9/11 suddenly confronted us with the reminder that we should not take our freedoms for granted. There are “big issues” involving security, the environment, energy, public health, raising the next generation and taking care of previous ones. Liberals have typically want to solve these with big government programs (and an emphasis on “solidarity”). Libertarianism, in pure form, wants an unregulated market (with just adherence to contract) to solve these problems (call it “market fundamentalism” or “extreme capitalism” or “hyper-individualism”). Social conservatism begrudgingly recognizes the importance of “sharing sacrifice” at the personal level and wants to force this through religion and “family values” and is often walking a tightrope where self-righteousness morphs quickly into corruption. The old Nolan Chart (“the World’s Smallest Political Quiz”) gives an overview.

Nevertheless, in my own circumstances, I have to deal with the painful reality that I have my own kind of payback issue, and I grasp for principals to explain this. Libertarianism, while trying to remove formal government from making personal decisions, sometimes leaves questions about the “morality” of more subtle aspects of personal responsibility up to Dr. Phil. The fact is, if we carry “hyper-individualism” and “personal responsibility” to an extreme, a lot of people can get left behind essentially to drop dead. This is particularly the case with eldercare.

My own situation, which I will discuss here only in general, reflects a dilemma. Certain parties believe that I should keep a low profile because I am “disabled” (??) myself and am only living a decent life at the indulgence of others; I never “paid my dues” like they did and particularly wasn’t man enough to have my own family. (No, I don’t need Dr. Phil’s “Man Camp”!) Yup, this gets emotional. (It's true, my "First Amendment driven" public involvement with the notorious "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays in the military makes it inappropriate for me to consider some kinds of similarly sensitive jobs myself; in a sense I take the policy as setting an example as to how civilian gays may be regarded in some circumstances.) Sometimes, others have wanted me to fight their causes and live through them and not my own ideas and “fantasies.” What do I want to see happen and help develop? Well, building on what I have written and what else is out there (wikis, search engines, Web 2.0, etc) help build a kind of media or Internet service that would encourage individuals to develop their understand of “political” causes on their own, without depending on those in authority (political, religious, or especially familial) to control what they believe. When someone wants the government to play robin hood, no matter how worthy the cause, one should understand all of the downstream consequences, in an objective way. For one good example, just look at how hard it is, even in the Internet age, to figure out why health insurance should work, and whether or not “single payer” really works in other countries without rationing and over politicization of illness and aging (and government supervision of individual lives). We can do better than this, and let ordinary people have a real handle on the truth. At the same time, I do resent attempts to get me to to participate in making something "right" emotionally when I know it is not. Is this a lack of Christian forgiveness? I think it has to do with karma and payback, and that's the inconvenient truth.

The personal moralists are right. The problems we face are enormous and somewhat unprecedented in nature. During the past few decades, especially since the early 1990s, westerner have become accustomed to independence in life choices, and the freedom, when used properly, can lead to enormous personal accomplishments. These blogs discuss many of them. At the same time, some of the problems may extra-market modes of personal accountability (like “carbon footprints”) and force people back into the ability to function well within the family and local community – to accept the somewhat mandatory socialization of local interdependence (which could certainly be tested with a pandemic, natural catastrophe or terrorist attack).

There are some specific areas where the freedoms we have come to taken for granted can be questioned. One of them is the explosion of “amateur” user-generated content with little regard to the possible consequences of careless dissemination (along with all kinds of other capabilities, such as the now well known copyright infringement problems with P2P). A symptom is the recent skittishness of employers about individual profiles. Another is the way family responsibility will be handled in a world with fewer children and longer lives. An attempt to impose filial responsibility, especially on the childless, sounds like a real possibility.

That’s where the utilitarian arguments about gay marriage and gay adoption – as well as letting gays serve relatively openly in the military – come in. Recognize that equal responsibilities need to go with equal rights, given the problems that we’ve got. Social conservatives have come back with arguments connecting marriage, family, and sexual intercourse (a treasured and commanding deferential place for it when regulated by traditional marriage) that to a libertarian sound self-effacing. They want to keep the gender complementarity-driven emotional shell around the institution of the family, allowing those who operate within its belief system to raise kids and care for other family members without so much personal responsibility on their own to the outside, globalized world. That ties into the paradox of “upward affiliation” that I talked about earlier. I recognize that the family is important. Marriage is important. But it shouldn’t eclipse self-awareness. It shouldn’t excuse having to impose on those (sometimes nearly indenturing them) who do not want to participate in the same way (by procreating). What seems to happen here is a retreat into emotion. I see it all the time, from a distance, expressed in evangelical church services. Just surrender to Jesus. I have my own form of cultural emotion and just don’t need this.

I won’t venture far into religion here – but it’s obviously a big influence. We’ve learned since 9/11 that separating church and state is a big deal for some people. They know they have to make sacrifices, and they need to have a church-state system ratify their self-righteousness. Plenty of people on our own religious right do, too. John Edwards tried to explain all of this in the 2008 Democratic candidate debates—personal beliefs and religion-neutral official policy must co-exist. For me, the notion of karma (as interpreted in some less conventional forms of “Gnostic” Christianity) makes sense as a bridge between Grace and the human societal idea of justice. It does mean that you can’t ask someone else to make something OK for you just with emotional dedication and empathy, without dealing with real consequences. Sometimes this can get harsh.

A birds-eye view of all this shows that the notion that people need to control or affect or "feel superior to" others in order to experience their sexuality goes in both directions. The gay arguments often punt to immutability but sound evasive and downright solipsistic; while social conservatives seem to think that the family bed is really for all adults, regardless of ability and heritage; and libertarians want both sides to leave each other alone, but maybe learn a little. Still, with our freedoms, we have to figure out the concomitant social responsibilities -- how to take care of people, not institutionalize them or drop them behind.

I sound critical of our naiveté about personal freedoms, and it is well to remember that similar challenges have occurred in the past few decades. In the 1960s and 70s it became more common for individual people to buy their own condos and homes without marrying, and that was seen as a social threat by some. In the 1960s, the draft and student deferments formed the moral equivalent of the 1990s debate over gays in the military. (At the time, it sounded to me like the "government" was saying, women's lives were more valuable than men's, and some men's lives (those with good grades) were more valuable than others. Imagine the potential for moral outrage and contradiction in a society now dedicated to the intrinsic value of human life, and one that had dealt with slavery.) The Arab oil crisis was seen as a threat to personal mobility. In the 1980s, AIDS was a seen by same as threat by a subset (the may gay community) to the general health of everyone. We’ve come through these challenges much better than have earlier societies experimenting with more freedom. . It helps to have lived through all of this to see it. For comparison, just look at the 1920s and 1930s and what happened in Europe.

So where does this leave me with libertarianism? For one thing, I have a grasp for a need to see “righteousness” and while I understand the point of Vatican “openness to procreation” ideas about morality, what happens in practice is corruption and self-promotion in the name or religion or family. I think righteousness is more closely understood in terms of karma, and has to do with the relationship of the person to the outside world. All of these big problems matter, and it seems important to “pay your dues.” Family responsibility can well exist for adults even when they don’t beget their own children (we ought to admit it publicly -- and debate whether everyone ought to develop cross-generational caregiving and parenting skills regardless of individual parental status -- a development that could favor committed same-sex relationships), and the idea of payback is real, even if not quite equivalent to the idea of freedom to contract and obligations that go with it. I don’t like to see any more government regulation of the individual than necessary. But what we do need to see is more open public discussion of what individuals ought to expect, given our “inconvenient truths” (or maybe, as with The Simpsons, “irritating truths”). (People instead whisper, "we told you so, that's what public morality says, but we can't talk about it in public because of political correctness and we might offend someone who feels put out by these older ideas.") Some town halls along the idea of a “Bill of Responsibilities” to go with a “Bill of Rights 2” would be a good idea.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Are we better off today?

Are we better off today than we were 37 years ago, when I started “working”, or right after WWII, at the beginning of the 50s boom? I just think it’s nice to note some historical prices.

A house in north Arlington, VA in 1949 -- $25000 (maybe $700000 today).

A mono phonograph record in 1962 -- $4.98 (often about $3.69 when discounted), stereo a dollar more; by the mid 1970s the price was around $9; today, a CD is typically $12-20 and online downloading of music is controversial

A hotel room at the New Yorker in Manhattan in 1964 -- $9

A one bedroom apartment near Hightstown, NJ in 1970 -- $165
A one bedroom apartment in Arlington VA in 1971 -- $160 (but undercover segregation was rampant)

A water pump in a car in 1969 – about $45
A gallon of gasoline in 1970 -- $0.369 was typical for regular; the gasoline prices started to rise in 1973 after the Yom Kippur war and Arab oil embargo
A front-end alignment on a car in 1972 -- $12.50

A hotel room in the Sheraton on the 494 “strip” in Minneapolis in 1974 -- $20.50 dinner included popovers

A one bedroom apartment in Caldwell NJ in 1972 $215
An efficiency in the Cast Iron Building in New York City in 1974 $270; by 1978 a similar apt as $312.71

A one bedroom apartment in Dallas in 1979 – as low as $215

A conversion condo in Dallas in 1980 $44900 with 5% down
A new condo in Pleasant Grove in Dallas in 1984 $39990 nothing down VA but much higher interest rates; prices would plummet in the late 1980s through the 1990s and then rise again

A typical condo in Arlington VA in 2007 -- maybe $400000

A TRS-80 computer in 1981 -- $3700 -- look what has happened since

Friday, July 27, 2007

Free speech: substitute teaching redux 2

In 1962, during the well-meaning but misguided “psychiatric intervention” that followed my expulsion from William and Mary for “telling” the Dean of Men that I perceived myself as a “latent homosexual,” one therapist said to me, “You have little comprehension of the consequences of the things you say and do.” (See the entry Nov. 28, 2006 on this blog.)

I’m presenting this discussion, inside out, to analyze and “come to closure” on a serious incident on October 2005 at one high school where I had substitute taught a lot.

But one thing about the “consequences” is these always have a social frame of reference. A statement that I had made as a simple innocuous fact is given all kinds of meaning by others (including the likelihood that I would never procreate), and what the social and business standing of others connected to me might become. People assume that most statements that have any chance of getting around are made for some kind of ulterior motive. They usually wonder what the person’s “gain” will be. They believe the statement is intended to entice or provoke some kind of action or reaction by others? Why? Because “man is a social animal.” In particular, most people accept the idea that their personal welfare is connected bidirectionally to the welfare of their families, communities, businesses. Most people accept some notion of solidarity and the idea that the reputations of other family members can be affected by the appearances created by their actions, and that statements about anything may be filtered by the partisan interests of the group. Some collective reputational responsibility is involuntary. Therefore, most advocacy speech from companies and organizations, while polished and “professional,” is often manipulative and skims the surface of psychological truths. We should do better than this.

So, it is with Internet speech. We’ve seen, since the beginning of 2006, increasing concern from employers about what job applicants and current employees say on their social networking profiles and blogs, given that (often) anyone on the planet (including stakeholders of the company) can find them with search engines. I’ve noted that employers tend to look at web behavior sartorially, the way they look at dress. They assume that any thing there was put there to make an impression. They are generally unwilling to take a “literary” interpretation of what they find, even if it is in fact literary in nature. This “Dress for Success” mentality assumes a certain social conformity in the way people compete, that family and children can sometimes justify behavior that might seem boorish if done by the individual on his own.

There is precedence for believing that people will believe what they see enacted in fiction, ever since Shakespeare embedded "The Murder of Gonzago" as his "mousetrap" in Hamlet. Fiction that takes itself seriously and looks real enough can cause real trouble in how readers or watchers interpret it.

Now, in addition to the books and website (dating back to 1997), I had started working on some screenplay treatments and scripts for my material, in 2002 while still in Minnesota. By 2004 I was starting to post some of the material on my doaskdotell site, in one directory (/scrplys). In some of these, a character arguably resembling me (and the resemblance is sometimes supported by the use of the name of my book and websites, although my own name is not used) appears, and gets into trouble, by giving into “temptation” and doing some things right on the edge that I don’t think I would do in real life. In the fictitious stories, the legal consequences are played out and shown, although there are lots of other complications. In one screenplay short, called “The Sub”, a substitute teacher, after some provocative behavior by a student (that, from a legal viewpoint, could be interpreted in more than one way, depending on jurisdiction), winds up getting into trouble, and thrown into prison where he dies, while (in a twist on the Oscar Wilde “Dorian Gray” theme) the student performs his musical composition at a public concert after his passing. Another relevant fact, is that early in the story the student saves the sub’s life with a defibrillator at school. (Defibrillators were not yet in common use in public schools with the screenplay was posted in early 2005, but school systems were beginning to announce plans to use them then, and they are in place now in many systems). I’m not going to be real specific about this, and I’ll refer to it as the “Oscar Wilde syndrome.” It's important to note that there are no images or pictures on these files, and there is no explicit language in the usual sense of the concept on the Internet. (See reference to Jennifer Steinhauer story in The New York Times, July 29, 2007, for another case in WA and CA that is not as similar to this as it may seem, discussion here.)

People will ask, what is the point? Aren’t movie screenplays supposed to go secretly through third party agents? Yes, sometimes, but now there is an Internet, and you want your ideas to get known and circulated. What are the ideas? Some them have to do with responding to religious right notions about “Oscar Wilde” that I want to throw back into their faces. (Link here provides more.) So what, I saw, any one can be tempted. The temptation of Jesus is in the Bible, and He did not surrender to them, but He admitted to feeling tempted. Why is this wrong? When are feelings and actions to be separated? There’s more. As the psychiatrist (above) said, I like to step on toes sometimes, particularly to make people “squirm” when caught in their “irrationality.” I like people to become aware of their false dependencies on others (particularly in the sheltering or pampering context of the family and institutionalized intercourse) that sometimes hide them from personal responsibility. I think there is a divide between certain zones of acceptability as defined in statutory law, as perceived as a moral issue, and as perceived in terms of social ostracism (the heightened need to protect minors from unquantifiable risks). All of this is explored in the various screenplays (some of which, if actually made and released, would probably fall into the soft R rated category). But, if someone who has not learned to think beyond his social or familial sense of “self interest” finds these, he or she might be fooled and believe that the material is posted to entice him to do something. Not so (the website had disclaimers saying contacts had to be legal in intent). Social context seems to be everything, and here it leads some people into circular "reasoning" based on what they believe the motives of others to be relative to only their frame or reference.

There is also a sequence in the screenplay where the “protagonist” refuses to complete a special education assignment when asked to borrow swimming trunks, help in the locker room, and get in the deep end of the pool. The protagonist claims that the military gay ban can cause a legal issue if he is asked to take care of the intimate needs of disabled kids.

In October 2005 I took a four-day assignment in a 9th Grade high school English class at a certain school. For most of the week, the kids were to analyze the famous short story (and compare to the movie) of “A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. The story has plenty of references to racism and anti-social behavior on the part of the captor. But on the second day, Wednesday, there was a break as the kids were to take a certain standardized test, which I helped proctor. A teaching intern (essentially a student teacher completing a coordinated degree program) was present. There was very little real need for continuous supervision of kids that day. On that that day, The Washington Times presented an editorial ("Suffocating the First Amendment" -- see entry Jan. 31, 2006 on this blog) that essentially claimed that bloggers could be shut down by the circumstances surrounding campaign finance reform. (I have discussed this on this blog on Jan. 31, see archive link). I showed the intern the article and she was quite interested. I told her I could give her some other materials, which were links on my own website (doaskdotell.com) where I had discussed similar issues. I gave her a handwritten sheet of paper with these links (I didn’t use the computer, but I still have a detailed record of exactly what these links were) and I didn’t mention the screenplays. It’s obvious that the effect of campaign finance reform on blogging and other political speech is by itself an important issue of interest in a public high school environment (civics and government).

On Thursday, the school day passed without incident as we watched the Connell movie (review)in each class (with the intern present), but after I got home I got a cell phone call from an assistant principal saying that I had given a staff member “a reference to an inappropriate website” and that “she was offended by it,” that the rest of the assignment was canceled and that it would be reported to the substitute office. I called the office, and it requested that I should request a meeting. I did, and that did not happen, but instead I was simply reinstated for the school. I had another assignment at the school in December, when the principal flagged me down. She characterized it as a “big problem” but talked about it in terms of separating “personal stuff” from the job. I was allowed to work the day (and not canceled the next day, which was snowed out), and overheard one student say that I was the “gays in the military guy.” I decided to stop substituting while considering the possible (and unpredictable, it seemed) legal ramifications whole incident, but was reinstated (at my request) in January 2007, but again excluded from that school.

Remember that most school systems that hire unlicensed subs allow principals to remove substitute teachers from a list without cause. The reasoning is based on incidents like this. Schools are messy places. Allegations are made, and they are often untrue and cannot be verified. But a principal is responsible for protecting safety and security at a school, and in a real world (especially given the history of the past ten years or so), cannot always reliably distinguish a real danger from an imagined or alleged one. That seems a reality of our post 9/11 world. The substitute office reminded me of this when reinstating me in January (see this blog January 29). Again, the “three strikes” policy allows schools to eliminate substitutes administratively, with no admission of wrongdoing by other side and with no legal effect.

I have copies of the ISP server logs of accesses to my domain during that period, and can track search requests, page requests, IP addresses and their owners, and specific dates and times. (I also submitted these to the attorneys for the COPA trial in Philadelphia.) From all of the factual information and investigation, this is what I can conclude with high confidence:

(1) The school probably had been told about the website by a parent (maybe after a kid looked up my name with a search engine) the previous June, when I had had many assignments there. (I never mentioned my sites or books in class, but I was in one good class long enough that many students would have become curious when they went home.) There was an unrelated incident there with another teacher, which would have expanded the radar screen. It’s important to note that no one ever contacted me about this directly, however. (Still another irony comes to mind: the class in June had been honors chemistry, and the PBS film Copenhagen (based on Michael Frayn's play) had been shown; in this play, during World War II Heisenberg and Bohr meet and must consider the ethics of handling scientific discoveries that they know as "truth" and still "own" but that could do great harm if released; review.)

(2) When I mentioned the website to the intern, the name was recognized immediately. I have since learned that the school tried to cancel the rest of the assignment that day, but the school district did not do so (or the school didn’t) and I worked normally the next day, Thursday. This supports the idea that the school knew about and was concerned about the website (from it having been found by a search engine) and particular screenplay when I started the assignment and might have alerted teachers to see if I mentioned it. Had assignments continued there, it probably would have approached me about this matter. Note also: "Mentioning" the site to another teacher (even verbally, without using school system computers) might meet a "legal standard" for "on campus" activity (in some cases, like Hazelwood), although here that interpretation sounds facetious to me: I was trying to make a comment about a political problem that could eventually prove relevant to a class that she taught.

(3) During the third day (Thursday), there were two sessions with the school district IP address looking at materials on my domains, with particular attention to the screenplay in question, which had not been mentioned on the note I had given the intern. During the first session, there was a legitimate verification that I was the author (reconciling “John” with Bill”) although it’s clear from other circumstances that the school already knew that it was mine (it would have been simple to verify on WHOIS). During the early afternoon session (completed a bit more than an hour before I was called) there was a legitimate effort to look at more of the material I had suggested, including COPA materials, in order to determine the context and intent of my postings. About ten days later, there was another session traceable to the school district, with legitimate requests that appeared to be trying to reassure the district that I had genuine free speech rights and some sort of "serious value", however perplexing. (This case is very different from COPA, but the overriding issue of context relative to the size of a web page or site still holds.) Had the Washington Times editorial never appeared and had I never mentioned my own site as a result but continued getting assignments at that school, I believe that this matter would have been brought to my attention soon anyway.

(4) The school had not blacklisted me because of the domain, but did so after I mentioned my connection with it. That, in the school’s mind, crosses the “threshold of danger.” (Some of the "danger" might not reside directly with me, but with the speculative idea that false accusations against teachers could occur.) It is not clear (given the academic, political and social relevance of the specific materials that I actually gave them) that would normally be a legally supportable conclusion, without making up a lot of rhetorical arguments (like personal business in the workplace, etc). But school district policy allows an administrator to exclude a sub for no reason at all, in order to deal with ambiguities like this.

(5) The intern was not “offended” by the site in the normal sense of that word. There was no pornography, violence (as with Cho at VPI), racism, and other material that is generally thought of as objectionable. In fact, there is no sexually explicit material (in the usual sense) in the screenplays. The “offense” comes from mainly from that one fictitious screenplay (and maybe one other) where I apparently portray myself (that is, through a character who is obviously similar to me) in a negative light with a “propensity” (to borrow the famous word from the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy) toward inappropriate interests and for a heightened risk for certain crimes. In other words, they regard the screenplay(s) as “self-defamation.” The other disturbing observation to them is that in two of them, students are shown as making inappropriate advances. The students are not based on any known or obviously similar real people, however. Again, it's important that the treatment files clearly label these works as fiction, include analytical diagrams comparing them to known screenwriting structures, and mention other similar films on the same material; anyone would know that these are scripts and not literally real. Another disturbing complication may well be that the screenplay and website say that the military "don't ask don't tell" policy could, at least indirectly, affect the legality of a gay teacher giving custodial care in a pinch--a speculation that the school might have to take at face value and believe is cause for disqualification, because emergency contingent reassignment of substitutes to unchosen duties is sometimes possible.

(6) Subsequent contact shows some genuine disagreement among officials as to this matter, as it is ambiguous; however school system policy would allow an administrator at that school to ban that substitute from assignments there, even based on his or own personal perceptions of an ambiguous situation; this is simply a consequence of being allowed to sub without a license (there is no "presumption of innocence" or "benefit of the doubt"). That is an administrative, and not a judicial matter.

There care cases known from publishing law where novel authors have been sued for presenting characters who too closely resemble real people. In some cases the violation of a confidentiality clause has been an issue. This tends to become a problem where a professional writes a novel and someone who was a client claims that a character is based on him or her, or in a situation where someone is in a confidential group where personal information is disclosed and a member of the group writes about one of the characters or the leader. (The novel “Touching” – Bindrim v. Mitchell.) In California, particularly, the idea that a work is fiction has not been an adequate defense. In other states (New York) the bar of proving similarity has been much higher. Based on some of these precedents, it’s reasonable that a teacher can be libeled in “fiction” and that so could a student if the student was recognizable. Here is a Bindrim link. Following the reasoning of Bindrim (if it applied in Virginia, see below), if the teacher in the screenplay were a recognizable known individual other than me and if the story really were fiction (it is), that could set up a libel suit. There could have been a chance that a story like this about some obviously different person (say a heterosexual female) could have accidentally resembled closely someone real and set up a litigation exposure.

But what happens when the author is the teacher, and the intention is to set up a hypothetical situation and demonstrate the possible outcome? That is the case here. I don't know of any case law that definitively answers a question like this.

If the author and the subject are the same, does this refute the claim that the author is defamed? Is there a presumption that the reader should automatically realize that this is a demonstration or a scenario of something that could happen is someone gave into temptation? (It's interesting to make a comparative legal analysis of O. J. Simpson's non-published "If I did it" missive.) But in a school environment, that presumes sufficient maturity level of the visitor, who could be a student. Furthermore, in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case (blog) ), the Supreme Court wrote that speakers, especially in connection with speech somehow linked to school, must be careful to anticipate the likely way an item of speech will be interpreted, even if the message is objectively (and maybe deliberately) ambiguous and otherwise legally acceptable. For a teacher with respect to minors, this is analogous to the “rebuttable presumption” clause in the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that presume that certain statements made by a uniformed Armed servicemember imply a likelihood that homosexual acts by a servicemember will occur in the future. It doesn’t sound fair, objective or “rational,” but the law allows this kind of thinking, at least in civil matters (where there is no criminal prosecution -- but remember the "pre-crime" in the film "Minority Report"; a work of fiction by itself is hardly "evidence" of a crime, whatever happens on "One Life to Live" -- although it could beg for testimony). The speaker here seems to be in a kind of “Orson Wells” position (for provoking panic in his radio broadcast about UFO’s), or perhaps the position of someone making a joke in a security line at the airport.

So, one says, my screenplay is the legal equivalent to a “confession” or "admission." Well, not exactly. First, I am not aware of any litigation in Virginia dealing with defamation in fiction. The reasoning is based on litigation in other states, mostly California and New York (where the movie studios and book publishers are). But it is clear that civil law needs to draw a line somewhere and a theory of "persuasive evidence" could be deduced from an opinion for a similar case in another state; otherwise one could defame someone else by pretending that a semi-truthful narrative is “fiction.” It's also noteworthy that, with fiction set in the present day (instead of a historical era, or fantasy or science fiction) there is often an intention to make the reader "believe" the events, so it sounds tautological that the author is responsible if the reader really does "believe" it! Since this incident we have seen an explosion in arrests of teachers around the country, and the NBC Dateline series. So hypothetical “self-defamation” in a public space does not seem like a legally acceptable practice now, even when the material is intended to be “educational”.

I have since removed from the domain (from public display, that is) materials in the screenplays that present this kind of potential problem (gross “self-defamation” in the sense of Bindrim). I had done that even before taking an unrelated non-classroom assignment with the school district in the spring of 2006, and it was not there during this past school year when I substitute taught again. I do have other web materials (movie reviews) that deal with these issues, but these are movies about other subject-characters not possibly resembling me, so they cannot pose this "big problem." From a legal point of view (I’ve checked some other opinions beyond the scope of this essay), I believe that it is important that, besides that no one have contacted me illegally, that the total number of assignments that I take before deciding once and for all on whether or not to seek a teaching license be limited to a finite number and time. This limit will be reached before the end of 2007. One political development that would be essential to my being able to enroll in a licensure program with confidence is the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” which I believe can have an indirect legal effect on teachers confronted with certain situations. Again, one observation that remains relevant is that I follow my own rules (as discussed in the previous post). My contact policy, limiting contact to legal purposes only, is here.

I am still left with some troubling observations, about what the law now calls "implicit content", a concept that is still evolving and that will take some major litigation events around the country (including cases with teachers) to pin down. We have created a technology, predicated on individualism, that allows anyone to reach the planet with what he or she has to say, and bypass all the old bureaucracy (unions, organizations, hierarchies) that used to control speech. But suddenly employers are finding that they have to look at speech in a somewhat “non rational” way and view it the way the public will view it, with some degree of collective emotion -- even mob rule and tribalism. That's why "online reputation management" has popped up as a new pursuit, although, beyond responding to libel (or privacy invasion or similar torts), the ethics of this kind of pursuit sounds questionable. I say, if you have to worry "What will the neighbors (or school principal) think?" about everything, there is no reason to say anything at all, because it would just be manipulating things to placate the emotions of others. But some of those third rails are still out there, hidden in the underbrush.

Update: Aug. 16, 2007

There is a situation in California which some visitors might consider comparable. My notes about that situation are here.
I realize it is "dangerous" to even "suggest" a legitimate comparison, but some people may. The comparison seems to be that, if one portrays a character whose circumstances and personality resembles oneself as having inappropriate "desires" or committing inappropriate acts in a fictitious setting (like a screenplay) that seems to be the "legal equivalent" of announcing those desires as one's own in public, at least in California where the "Touching" case occurred. (I am not in California.) I would say that, based on the experience of the past two years with media reports of employer objections to employees or applicants parodying themselves on social networking sites, the practice (I've given it the name "dreamcatching" on other posts) is legally questionable or objectionable, maybe to the point that it would violate an AUP since any ISP operates in California and other states (maybe New York) with a history of similar litigation.

There a couple of major differences, however, between this problem (a fictitious screenplay) and what is happening in CA now. One is that the "dreamcatching" screenplay obviously makes many important social and political points that gives it legitimate artistic value when looked at in the context of other legal issues (obscenity, COPA -- had it stood up). It even has legitimate value for a reasonable subset of minors. The current situation in CA may be closer to obscenity because of the apparent lack of legitimate value in what that blogger was doing. But the troubling point seems to be that the screenplay was self-posted, without supervision of the expectation of legitimate renumeration. That, in some people's minds, raises questions about purpose of motive. A book (even the O.J. Simpson "If I Did It"( or screenplay), if it goes through legitimate third party commercial channels of an industry with investors and completion bonds and insurance (as in the motion picture industry) may be recognized as more legitimate (even if some people still object to the content). Some persons will argue that when material like this is self-published without financial reward, it is only natural to expect many people to read an "ulterior personal motive" into the posting, and view it as enticement. That is, without further evidence of benefit the poster does not have the right to have a self-posted item respected as "literature" even if it has some value. Some people will argue that this kind of material should not be self-posted (that even fits into the recent "April's Law" proposal) at all, although up to now the intellectual property law treats self-published and trade-published materials the same way. That could change, I suppose. That would require a longer trail of legislative and litigation experience (in other states or at a federal level), which many of us do not want to see.

I want to note that I have posted my own "blogging policy" which assumes that people who make decisions about others on the job are not as free to speak candidly on sensitive matters on their own in public as those who do not. Short term substitute teachers do not give grades and do not have real authority. So I was obeying my own rules, and that supports some contention that I did not violate "good faith." But the rules have changed, given all the public concerns about employers and social networking. Now it is clear that one should not state directly, or indirectly as in the "Touching" sense, that one might not be fit for a job one holds, even if one is trying to make a point of political or social irony or protest social attitudes. It's easy for me to imagine even more extreme "Stranger than Fiction" scenarios in which even I might feel that the doctrine could apply, so I can't discount the fact that the principal could have a less tolerant standard of what kind of indirect candor is acceptable in a fictitious setting.

The visitor is encouraged to search for "touching Bindrim California" and locate the article "Stranger than Fiction: The Novel that Gave Rise to Libel Damages" published in Press Law, The National Law Journal, May 1980, by James C. Goodale. Because it is a Word document, I didn't give the link; you can also look at the html cache. Although I can understand the reasoning behind "The Touching Doctrine", many law professors disagree with it and believe it inhibits genuine literary speech.

Update: Oct 5, 2007.
The controversy over Paramount Vantage 's delay of the release of the Dreamworks film "The Kite Runner" illustrates another example of "The Touching Doctrine" in a dangerous international context. See this blogger entry.

For more on teacher "free speech" and personnel issues, see this blog, Dec. 6, 2006, with the coverage of a "Dr. Phil" episode. There is also some discussion on my COPA blog here, especially Jan. 9.

In retrospect, I wonder: if my "bringing this up" in response to the Washington Times editorial and drawing attention to the "personal stuff" was necessary for them to be sure "it was me," then why did they apply the "Touching" doctrine at all? If they could identify me in the internals of the screenplay, why weren't they sure enough about the site? I know from the server logs that they did apply the "doctrine". And if so, they certainly knew about all the other material on the site, to give it "context". Perhaps they didn't think it was "my place" to draw attention to a problem that had so many personal aspects. Okay, but the newspaper editorials had just done the very same thing. This all started with an improbable confluence of coincidences. Sounds like a docudrama mystery. Would make a good movie in itself.

Update: Nov. 14, 2010:

I have a coordianted post now on the "Bill on Major Issues Blog" today (11/14/2010). Navigate to it through Blogger Profile.

Update:  Aug. 13, 2013

I did a little more forensics with the Internet Archive.  It looks like I posted the screenplay and treatment on Feb. 4, 2005 (they had been written in October, 2004).  It would not have been conspicuous to students or teachers who knew about the site in June 2005 when I had multiple assignments at the high school, but it would have been much more conspicuous, to people familiar with the general nature of the doaskdoell site, after late July, 2005.  "The Privilege of Being Listened To"' was apparently posted in June 2005.  Evidence suggests that the school already knew about "The Sub" before it even looked at my site on Oct. 13, because it tried to ban me on Oct. 12, and the system failed to inform me or register their action.  The only reasonable way is that someone knew enough and was curious enough to wade through the site in June 2005, even though it would not have been as easy to find as it would have been six weeks later.   The moral of the story is, what you post, if it is provocative, even more likely to surface, even if obscure, than you think.

Update: Nov. 12, 2014

There is a more detailed account of what was in the actual server logs and forensics on my WordPress "do ask do tell notes" blog, March 6, 2014, link here

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Miss America: Myspace, kids, and teachers: teach intellectual property law in high schools!

Miss America, Lauren Nelson, recently told Congress that minors should be required to take and pass course work in safer use of the Internet before they are allowed to have their own accounts – email, domain names, or especially social networking site profiles. The obvious inference is that public schools should offer this subject matter in various grades, in English, social studies and perhaps technology education.

First, let me say that this is something I can help schools with. The proper place for a position dealing with this need, if Congress or a state legislature mandates it, is perhaps in information technology, or perhaps program evaluation. This idea could lead to new positions in some school districts.

The media has pretty well covered many of the issues. Some of the concerns have to do with giving out personal information (that could even compromise the security of other family members). Some of the more subtle concerns deal with recent reports that employers and colleges look at profiles of students (a practice the ethics of which is still worthy of separate debate). This is related to the recent trend for some companies to offer “online reputation management,” and the idea that employers might come to expect it.

But one of the biggest concerns is simply knowledge of the legal risks. These particularly concern copyright infringement (more common in peer-to-peer with music and movies, a development that has resulted in kids and parents getting surprise lawsuit threats and payment demands from record companies). A particularly disturbing issue is defamation – and that can include unintentional or perceptual “self-defamation.”

Again, before the Internet, we were used to a legal climate where book and magazine publishers carefully vetted material before releasing it “into the wild.” Yet, we release 13 year old kids to the wild with no supervision.

Social networking sites and blogging sites have developed the ability to “whitelist” – to limit access to the content to a known list of recipients. Sometimes (as with Facebook) the list is wider and based on an email address with a school. But companies providing self-publishing capabilities to subscribers know how to do this. It is plausible to develop a practice where the default is that a new site must be whitelisted until the owner passes a test demonstrating knowledge of the terms of service and responsibilities. This could even eventually be expected of adults, and idea that becomes apparent if one compares the Internet environment with what existed before.

Likewise, content publication and social networking providers might be required to verify age and formal parental consent. But we know from the COPA trial that reliable age verification is very difficult, and requiring that certainly could provoke legal challenges again. Convictions for certain offenses would preclude the ability to use such a service ( a legal precedent being that convicted felons often cannot vote). Myspace, is has been reported, recently identified and removed almost 30000 rso providers, and had to be pressured to do that.

While this discussion applies to students (middle, high school and college) what about teachers? Here we get into some more controversy.

As visitors know, I have long been concerned that when people have certain jobs and then, on their own, become controversial with candid online content that they provide, relationships with stakeholders can be compromised. I have even said that managers and people in certain other kinds of jobs should not self-publish without supervision at all. I wrote a sample blogging policy myself.

With teachers, there are the same issues. One major risk is that students or parents would find material that the teacher has written when at home, form an unfavorable impression of the future (whether or not this impression is really fair or justified), or feel that curriculum approved by parents (through school boards) is being undermined. The major “risk” would occur with a permanent teacher who has the normal authority to give students course grades. The tendency in some schools to centralize testing (with SOL’s and the like) might mitigate that concern somewhat.

With subs, the concern should obviously be much less. A short term substitute teacher does not have any practical authority over students (signing bathroom passes doesn’t count). A long term sub, or a sub who works repeatedly at just one or two schools, could present more of this kind of “risk.” That’s why I think that, even with public employees, school districts should have formal blogging policies for teachers.

Obviously, for a teacher this is a sensitive issue. A teacher says, I’m not “political” what’s wrong with my having my gardening blog? Well, nothing, maybe. In fact, many teachers place their course syllabuses online and allow the entire world to see them with no logon. There’s an issue with drawing the line and with the possibility that material would be reviewed and censured to make sure that the teacher’s writings would not cause a disruption in the school environment.

As public employees, teachers have had long recognized free speech rights, and they are presumably stronger outside the classroom or school property. There is a long audit trail of litigation about this, and there are numerous Supreme Court opinions which generally support teacher free speech off the job, but they came out, by and large, before the Internet.. But the Internet, at least with a website or blog that allows all unregistered users, is pervasive; essentially anyone can know what it is about even if its blocked on school computers. If a gay teacher does not like restrictions on what a school district allows to be taught, does he or she have the automatic right to make is own material available to the public? Even if the site is never mentioned at school, the practical likelihood that kids will find it (given the power of search engines) is very great. Where is the balance to be struck? Must a site be whitelisted, or blocked from search engine robots? Maybe content labeling (discussed in another blog here) would help. Or does the school district just live with the “risk”? The trouble is, it has no real way of assessing the risk.

Before the Internet age, ordinary people tended to keep a low public profile and let unions, organizations and pressure groups represent their interests. Organizational advocacy tends to be partisan, and tends to leave a lot to be desired in terms of intellectual honesty. In the Internet, individuals can carefully tailor positions to address the subtlety of various issues and how their resolutions could affect various parties with unintended consequences. With the “democratization” of debate by public “amateur content” we certain have a new intellectual richness as to how we can perceive issues – a point that ought to be taught in civics courses in high schools and colleges. Yet, allowing people in formal positions of authority to participate this way always presents unquantifiable risks.

If I were to become a permanent teacher with a license and formal “authority” over students, including grading, my public presence on the Internet would have to go. That’s not the case in any job where I am an “individual contributor” and have no formal authority over others (and that could even be a position developing Internet safety curricula some day – without my own students).

In the fall of 2005, there was a potentially serious incident involving some of my own content and one particular high school. Soon I will offer some analysis and conclusions about it, to the extent that I can do so safely.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Classroom management and discipline: Substitute teaching redux 1

I’m going through reviewing, one last (or penultimate, maybe) time, my situation as a substitute teacher and whether I would go ahead and pursue licensure. The following link points to the discussion I wrote about this during the winter of 2006-2007.

I did resume substitute teaching in late January 2007 in one school district in northern Virginia. In this and one subsequent posting, I want to review the issues that have occurred since 2004. I’ll keep the comments general and principled.

Today, I want to go into the issues of complaints about my performance in classroom management, and particularly in maintaining a posture as an authority figure who could discipline less intact students when necessary.

To review, remember that public school systems serve a huge variety of students, from pre-school to college level in high school, from special education to the most gifted. A teacher is likely to want to specialize in one of these areas. A reasonable question, still, is whether I could become a mathematics teacher in high school only, with only a regular or AP-like track.

The great demand for teachers, however, seems to be at lower grades and with special education. The latter is a loaded term, referring to the statutory requirement to provide the kid with an individualized education plan. Special education includes special classes for the severely disabled and retarded, who generally can use public school until age 21, and moderately learning impaired students who are often blended into regular, team-taught classes (one teacher for subject matter, one a special ed teacher). In many areas, the demand for special education teachers is so great that teachers have been brought from overseas. The concern over qualification of teachers should include both academic preparation (college hours and Praxis) and, for teachers who work with less mature kids, practical experience in working with less mature kids, which is often obtained by many people in the family.

A note about math: in elementary grades, there is a lot of drill, and the teaching of the skills is hard work indeed. In high school, many less successful students are intimidated by the abstract thinking in algebra and geometry. It’s help for there to be, not simply a lot of homework, but a lot of short, fairly easy quizzes for some students to build some agility with the abstraction skills. Once students learn to integrate mathematics into their sense of “enlightened self interest” they tend to do much better and learn much more quickly.

The practical problem for school districts, as noted in earlier blogs, is that substitutes are often needed in these areas, often more than in the standard and AP areas. So there is an issue that substitutes may not be trained for the challenges that they would face in dealing with disadvantaged students. School districts seem to be depending on family experience, which may, for many people, be insufficient.

I have noticed that the health and appearance of students (especially with respect to the media reported issue of obesity) improves markedly with income level and family stability of the parents. I have never taken a physical education assignment, although one could be asked at the last minute; see the legal note below on custodial care.

One idea to monitor the suitability of subs, as noted in earlier blogs, would be the limit the amount of time someone can substitute without committing to licensure. On the other hand, in areas of shortages, school districts should be able to offer scholarship and internship programs leading to licensure for “career switcher” people without their having to take the financial risk or burden of another major university program first.


My own issues fall into a few different areas. One of these occurred early in that I found myself in situations for which I was not prepared, especially special education. All substitutes could get calls for “public health training assistant” and I did not know what that was; in Arlington there was a special “school” that was severely disabled only, and I did not check it first. Also, I mixed up a couple of school names and inadvertently put down a couple of elementary school names.

In the PHTA situation, there was the possibility that I would have to give personal custodial care (as in the bathroom). That did not actually happen, but one teacher asked me if I would mind borrowing some swimming trunks and monitoring the deep end of the pool. I declined. I am not a swimmer, and as a 60 year old I did not want to be semi-nude in front of students. The “politically correct” message (about physical attractiveness and, as Dr. Phil calls it, “tissue death”) being sent with such an exhibition is not all right with me.

There’s another potential indirect legal pitfall with custodial care, “don’t ask don’t tell” as I discussed in December. Since I have announced homosexuality in a public space, the legal question arises whether my giving of custodial care would violate the “consensual” rights of the student (following the military policy as a precedent). But the same question could come up with nurses and doctors if you have a patient not competent to give consent.

I narrowed the assignments that I would take. I took instructional assistant assignments sometimes, and those actually only required a high school diploma (substitute “teachers” had to have 60 hours of college). In a number of these assignments there were one-on-one encounters with special education students who did need a lot of focused, constant attention. For example, in one case in a middle school, a student was to work some multiplication problems, and needed to have a grid drawn for him for the columns. When I criticized his “answer” as not “reasonable” the regular teacher pulled me aside and said she was “protective” of her students and that I was harsh. However, I wasn’t “attacking” the student, I was only questioning his work. That’s the way it is in the normal business work world. You never attack people, but you do criticize work itself.

On one occasion I found myself with a severely disabled male accompanying him to a home economics class, where I was supposed to “make him” respond to the class. I have no idea what this means. An untrained substitute should not be put in this position.

The other major problem occurred with “classroom management” in regular classes with some troublesome students. There were two middle school complaints (I love the school system's bureaucratic euphemism: "memorandum of complaint" -- not exactly the language of Oprah), and there would have been one high school complaint if I had not quit (Arlington) first.

In one case I had taken a nine-day absence for a music teacher in a middle school. Now, with my nine years of piano and knowledge of classical music, the high school chorus and orchestra class assignments had gone well, as they always had student conductors and could run themselves. Most high schools have a few very gifted musical students (such as one who sings commercials for companies, and another (in Maryland, not where I taught) is going to Julliard to study composition). When these students are present, the classes are a pleasure.

This teacher had three very self-sufficient classes, and two sixth grade classes that needed constant intervention. I was not prepared to “conduct” them in rehearsal, and it was obvious that for two weeks they could not be productive without a regular band teacher. The ethics of my taking the assignment (the “easy money” idea) might have sent a wrong message, and some sixth graders might have had no other way to react than misbehavior. One of the girls begged me to conduct anyway, and wrote up a note as to who was misbehaving. Two or three girls went to the office to complain that I could not handle a few of the students. After two days of this, my assignment there was cancelled, and eventually I was “blacklisted” from the school, although I was never notified of that.

There was, shortly thereafter, a three day science class in a middle school in a relatively affluent area. There were four classes, and 90% of the students did the classwork assignments well (in fact, half of the students were very good and capable of fast-tracking) and turned in all required work. However, on the second and third days, a guidance counselor and special ed teacher came in to assist with two or the four sections, indicating that there had been complaints about student conduct in the back of the room from one or two female students who needed to be “protected.” I was asked to complete the assignment but then blacklisted from the school by the same form letter complaining of “poor classroom management.” As with the other school, there was handwritten documentation (for placing me on the “ do not use” list for the school) complaining of unwillingness or inability to maintain classroom discipline. There are factual questions with this incident, but I believe that a few students complained that I was not paying attention to misbehavior or two or three boys in the classroom. The special ed teacher picked out certain students and disciplined them (making them stand up), something I would not do myself as a sub,

Later, there was a two-day high school assignment, of science for underperforming students, that failed on the second day, when some gang-type boys created a disturbance, refused to follow instructions, disturbed others trying to do the work, and resulted in calls to security. They seemed to resent the idea that someone like me, who has not “paid his dues” as a man, should be in charge of them. At that point, I resigned from that school district.

Generally, most assignments, however, with mainstream (or sometimes advanced) classes went very well. Many students appreciate being “left alone” by a laid back substitute who simply lets and facilitates their assignments. I could always help them in any subject, looking up questions in textbooks, on the Internet, sometimes work math problems (even prove trig identities). Here my education level (M.A. in Mathematics) and educational level works. I did take the Math Praxis II test in Virginia and passed with a margin.

However, in classes with much younger or less intact students, there are issues. For one thing, a short-term sub does not know the students well, although a quick glance at the beginning of a class often conveys a lot. Generally, if a sub that is not often at a particular school and is only there for a couple days, it does not seem pertinent to become overly involved in the mechanics of discipline. With the “80-20” rule a more laid-back approach does work with most students in practice. A school district that wants subs to maintain the same kind of discipline as regular teachers (especially special education teachers) should consider using on licensed subs, or limiting subs to a few schools so that students will recognize the sub and come to regard him or her as faculty and worthy of respect as an authority figure.

It is the expectation that I play an in loco parentis role “just for authority” that causes me other issues. As indicated in an earlier post (July 19), I did not learn the competitive male skills as a younger person that would make me a desirable husband and father in most people’s terms. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but it is the brutal truth. That makes it more problematic for me to be regarded that way. Part of it is, indeed, never having married and fathered children as my own – so I don’t want to put on an act with pseudo-fathering skills for kids who are unprepared for school by their home environments. Add to this, I am an only child, so I did not learn “family responsibility” skills of supervising younger siblings. So, in my circumstances, put all together, it is questionable whether it makes sense that, after 30 years of urban social exile as a gay man, I could play that role credibly in front of kids who need to be supervised by someone more like them—someone accustomed to the expectation of being able to “protect” people and find meaning in a social hierarchy. That’s not me; it just provokes my “autoimmunity.” I don’t think that this is as big an issue for younger teachers (male or female, who often, as we remember, were unmarried in past generations) as it is for someone of my generation. The one thing that could help me is full "political equality" as I have discussed on this and other blogs.

There is an older essay on this from early 2005 here.

Update: Feb. 2, 2008

Here is an AP story from Jan. 16, 2008, "Teacher absences are hurting learning
Vacuum in classroom linked to lower test scores, research shows," on MSNBC, for the Today Show, link here.

Picture (above): New Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA; I graduated from there in 1961.

Picture (below): substitute list removal letters from 2005

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Search engine company data retention, privacy, and advertising

Ellen Nakashima has an important story on page D1 in print, Business Section, in The Washington Post, Tuesday July 24, 2007, “Search Engines Tighten Privacy: Data Retention Concerns on Rise.” The link is here.

Several major companies plan to reduce the length of time that the source of search queries is retained. Microsoft (msn) will make queries anonymous in 18 months, Yahoo! in 13. Ask will allow users to make all query retention anonymous. Google plans a period of 18 to 24 months, separate and make search query more secure, and shorten the period of cookies. The cookie comment is interesting. When I run McAfee scan, it always deletes some cookies but leaves most cookies in place.

Some of this has to do with the moderation by the Federal Communications Commission, which has concerns over Google’s planned acquisition of Doubleclick.

Concerns over consumer privacy have mounted, since, for example, when AOL accidentally released the search results and users of up to 650000 searches.

The search engine industry claims that search result databases are very helpful in delivering ads to websites that are likely to interest specific visitors. That certainly makes sense. Companies do targeted marketing based on collected consumer data all the time and this has always been seen as legitimate business. When I worked for Chilton, a credit reporting company (now Experian) in Dallas in the 1980s, much of the company’s revenue (and support for our jobs) came from the sale of consumer data to advertisers for “promotions” (which then were by mail), as well as for conventional credit report checks.

I often use the Urchin statistics on doaskdotell.com to tell me what is of concern to visitors. Some of the searches are silly and reflect a concern for body image (especially in conjunction with prominent younger male actors). Sometimes visitors seem to want to confirm rumors of the sexual orientation of various persons. I don’t ever out anyone or publish that, but the appearance of a name and various words on the same HTML page will cause a false “hit” (as with an actor’s name and a movie that deals with gay subject matter) and the page must be retrieved and read to see what it really says. (For example, I often have more than one movie or book review on the same page, which causes combinations to come up). During the COPA (Child Online Protection Act) trial, the Justice Department asked for records of searches to verify a theory that visitors deliberately go fishing for prurient items. But those searches were reported as anonymous (the identities of the searchers were not disclosed).

But, more significant, is that visitors seem to be very concerned about some social and political issues that the major media outlets have yet to pay attention to. Many of them have to do with more subtle areas of family values and free speech controversies. For example, I get a lot of hits on “filial responsibility laws” (especially in California), and a lot of hits on “blogging policy” or issues having to do with employers checking social networking site profiles (which the media started writing about in 2006), and even “reputation maintenance.”

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Scripps Howard editor comments on free speech haze

Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, has a sobering if a bit nebulous and inconclusive op-ed called “Free speech fog” on page A11 of the print version of The Washington Times, Saturday July 21, 2007.

His main concern is that “citizen journalists” be held accountable to the same legal standards regarding defamation and other risks as is professional journalism today. He makes a lot of caveats. He admits that, with technology, the professional media has short-circuited the fact-checking process in the name of cost-cutting and efficiency. Remember that 50’s board game “Star Reporter”? He mentions, somewhat obliquely, the issue of cribbing, and (beyond academic integrity) it seems to beg the old question of ownership of "scoops," an idea that contradicts "fair use" in the copyright law.

He notes some equivocation in the actions of new Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito, who stated that he will defend free speech in all media, which would include the Internet, and who (by inference) appeared eager to protect the rights of bloggers with respect to the threats that came from campaign finance reform. Alito, however, was willing to limit free speech in the Alaska high school case where a student was arguably promoting drug use at a school sponsored event. One important and understated significance of that case is that the Court indicated that speakers (whether on the Internet or in physical presence or any media), when visible in public, do have to take responsibility for the likelihood that their ambiguous content can be misconstrued by others as enticing. This is the “implicit content” concept that came up tangentially in the COPA trial with respect to school systems, with the judge indicating that it is an unsettling and unclear concept with little judicial experience.

It is true that the Internet (with its incarnations like Web 2.0 and user generated content) was turned loose on the public, including minors, with (compared to what is expected of journalists in the established press) no legal training and no real grasp of the potential downstream consequences of exhibitionism or defamation (of others or even of self) on the Internet. Thomasson is vague as to what will be done about it, but suggests that it is inevitable that their will be some major litigation incident on amateur publications that gets to the Supreme Court.

There is a lot to be looked at, to be sure. Some of the risks come from irresponsible behavior by major corporations (including banks and credit grantors). Some of it results from technology deployed as free that, with only microscopic unit charges (like email) could become much safer. The free market is taking steps to “rate” websites and inform visitors of dangers, although this process is new and far from perfect. It’s possible, though, that down the road, individual publishers might have to demonstrate educational qualifications (such as mandatory courses in high school on legal risks), or financial stability or other resources to stay afloat—the period of free entry could come to an end. The recent book by Andrew Keen, "The Cult of the Amateur" (reviewed on the books blog June 26), while overdone, seems relevant here. Possibly the concepts of speech, publication and distribution will become separated somewhat in the eyes of the law, as they used to be separated in practice.

It’s also important that the Human Resources world get a grip on this – as to how much or what kind of search engine checking on job applicants or employees is ethically appropriate, and how to interpret third party postings about applicants that are likely to be unreliable. Online reputation has suddenly become a new buzzword, but what it ought to mean is still quite debatable.

The old media world still has issues with bureaucracy, and important, cutting-edge controversies (like filial responsibility laws) can be too slow to get out. Citizen journalists can put pressure on them to do a better job. But this state of affairs might not last forever.

Picture: in this softball field, at least, it's a long poke to left field for a homer.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Assessment 4: A free market "cultural revolution"

Assessment 4:

In August 2003, eight months out from my “retirement” layoff from information technology, I showed up early one rainy morning at a Bloomington, MN hotel to be screened for a possible job as an airport screener for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). After initial processing, we were to go through hours of “assessments” – first a personality test, then other tests, and then a medical. It was supposed to be possible to get a job offer in one day. At the time they needed to hire people badly. I didn’t finish it because there was a misunderstanding about pay scales. But this was a warmup that makes a point. After I moved back to Va, I took another test at a Compusa store for part-time screeners, and did not pass (because there was a test on recognizing baggage that would probably require one to have been trained).

I’ve taken the exams to become a USPS letter carrier and that broke down because the medical records from my former hip repair in Minnesota were not available. But I was told in the interview that this was a very “physical job.” Indeed, a letter carrier has to case the mail and then drive and walk the route and make no mistakes.

I worked part-time for fourteen months calling for contributions to an Orchestra (with some success) and two months as a debt collector before moving back. The collections job was the first one where I punched a time clock. There were volume benchmarks: you were supposed make 175 calls a day (8 hours) and at least 50 contacts. This might have worked if I had not come back (most collection jobs are in the Midwest) because there could have been a need for medical collections, and I do have a lot of health care background. I also worked three volunteer nights in fast food at the Metrodome for MCC. That’s my only experience working in “retail” with a cash register.

Now, Barbara Ehrenreich reported her experience as an undercover low-wage worker in her book Nickel and Dimed. She makes the good point that we should be ashamed of our dependency on the unpleasant labor of others and that it is so underpaid and exploited. Of course, this drives much of the illegal immigration problem. But when I started my working adult life in 1970, I ran into this quickly as I explored my social and political environment in New Jersey and New York, even before “coming out” again. The Far Left, particularly, made a lot – with quite a bit of anger and indignation -- of the unfair exploitation of the drudgery of others. That went along with an opposition to allowing inherited (unearned) wealth (which can have strings attached through the “dead hand” -- and what about caregivers?). The climax of this in the far left, of course, came with the Cultural Revolution of chairman Mao in Communist China in the 1960s, where intellectuals were shipped to join the peasants (the “proles”) in the countryside. (That happens in North Korea today.) This is not an idle concern. The recent indie film “Manufactured Landscapes” shows how western consumerism can exploit third world labor and leave it littered with toxic waste. And it isn’t hard do see how expansion in the Third World, where people want our living standards, will raise divisive political and moral issues about energy use and “carbon footprints.”

Now I thought I was paying my dues fairly by remaining an individual contributor (the nice HR word for paean) in my computer programming jobs and doing more of my share of the nightcalls – without extra pay, sometimes staying up 24 hours straight. This got to be part of my answer to the questions about “work ethic.” In the late 1980s, employers began to perceive the street-smart fear that “data processing” was not a “real job” and that spoiled programmers (who didn’t face the competitive pressures of “real men” with sales jobs) could be eliminated by data center consolidations after mergers and hostile takeovers. I wrote a term paper about this (“The Job Market for Computer Professionals”) for a recertification course at Northern Virginia Community College in 1995; I have lost it, but some of this essay is the gist.) It turned out that demand would roar back for Y2K and development of mid-tiers, but then collapse after the 9/11 and scandals period. Nevertheless, the position of many “salaried professionals” is a bit tenuous and can be undone by a “free market cultural revolution” (or counter-revolution).

What we are talking about, of course, is jobs that require a lot of regimentation or physical stress. Discover has a series “dirty jobs.” Sebastian Junger wrote a book about dangerous jobs and “paid his dues” by cutting trees. His “The Perfect Storm” created some controversy by pointing out the terrible conditions of men who work in commercial fishing and get paid only when they bring in the catch. It may be stressful to stay up all night to get a computer cycle run, or a law passed, or a trial argument prepared, but that’s not quite the same thing. Now (after some other complicated career and retirement issues discussed elsewhere) I have taken advantage of Virginia's lax hiring of substitute teachers without licenses, when some might say I should "pay my dues" by working a dangerous graveyard shift at a 7-11, limit the bathroom breaks, and balance after the shift.

With a bit of pluck, I remember being teased about this in other social circles. At the Ninth Street Center (posting June 27), back in the 70s, I was prodded to do my part of the washing of dishes after the chicken aspic Saturday socials. (Oh, well, that happened on a Sierra Club trip in Texas, too.) I have even been told that it would be good for me to be sponged off of. I have, but only minimally (in the followup of the 1980 "refugiados cubanos" crisis in Texas).

During my jeunesse, I was a lot more exposed to this sort of thing. In 1968 I was “drafted” and, like almost everyone else, went through Basic Training. There was a lot made of physical perfection in foot and wall locker inspections (“all buttons buttoned” – “you will shine your boots, you will shine your low quarters, you will clean my barracks” – it’s hard to get things really immaculate!) , with the drill sergeant maintaining (correctly) that following military orders precisely could make a life and death difference some day in combat. A couple days in Basic, we had “detail unit”, and one assignment was a light construction detail. Someone complained that I was the “worst detail man he had ever seen” and he was going to report me to my “First Sergeant” for an “Article 15” to “ruin my life.” I told that “bad detail man” story on a subsequent assignment at the Pentagon and it did not come across well. Later on KP someone asked me “how many jobs have you been fired from?” I do remember cleaning the grease pit with a toothbrush on Sunday, March 31, 1968, a low point. I survived and bounced back.

In those days, student deferments had been the moral issue, until the lottery was instituted in 1969. The draft would end in 1973, although Selective Service Registration of males continues today. In earlier times, men understood that they took their chances defending the freedom of others until they had a right to their own lives. That doesn’t comport with modern ideas of freedom because we think we are safer now. But in the post 9/11 world, talk about the unfairness of the “backdoor draft” in Iraq, and restoring the draft or some kind of mandatory national service comes back.

There was an even earlier instantiation of this sort of thinking – family, especially my own father. While I was talented in bookish pursuits and music, he tried, at times, to make an issue of the way I did chores (lazily). Manual labor and elbow grease had become intrinsic virtues in his world. His favorite mantra was “learn to work.” He was concerned about the way I did these tasks in situations where the end results probably were not important, but what he saw as a moral principle was. Extent this kind of thinking today – if everyone has to pass algebra to graduate, should everyone be proficient in physical fitness, learn to swim, perform “volunteer” manual labor? You can see how this plays into the battle over racial and cultural divides in public school populations. Even NIH, during my stay there in 1962, had an occupational therapy program that emphasized having the discipline to perform a repetitive task for a scheduled work shift.

My father’s intent was, of course, to prepare me for the responsibilities of pampering or protecting a future wife and raising children. If someone masters these “manly skills” he is much more likely to “grow up straight” and “normal” according to all of the old-fashioned moral wisdom. The “sissy boy” is the right wing equivalent of the left wing decadent, parasitic bourgeoisie. That was the fantasy of the right, just as much as “cultural revolution” was the province of the left. It’s funny how they come together behind the scenes. It’s interesting to me how the “threats” to resume the draft (and include women, of course) come mainly from the Left, as a tool, however, to protest the war in Iraq as Vietnam II, like a movie franchise. (Charles Moskos, in fact, thinks that the draft would be a good ploy to finally end the misguided “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays in the military, which he largely authored in 1993.)

Here, I have to come back to my own “morality paradigm” that, as I said in Sunday’s posting, deals with performance, merit, ability to support others and to some extend share their burdens. I said that family and procreation are means to that, but not moral ends of themselves for everyone (otherwise you reach a contradiction when people are marginalized and muzzled). It is the capability that is more like the end. I took piano for nine years and went into chemistry and then mathematics over Cold War concerns over what would happen to me if I were drafted early. In retrospect, given the mores of the time, that almost sounds cowardly. Had I competed for a music career and been successful, any of these issues about “proving myself” as an amateur or being coerced to support others out of common moralism would go away. (At least, unlike the prodicy boy Ephram in Everwood, I didn’t knock anybody up; I wouldn’t have, and that is the tragic irony of that WB show for me; Ephram was so determined to prove himself a “man” at 16. But my first piano teacher did say she was concerned that I grow up as a "normal boy" -- as if doing so were a fundamental moral duty.) Being childless also goes away as a “moral” concern, although success in what I really wanted to do and found expressive might have led to marriage after all.

I looked into volunteering for the Peace Corps in 2002 (after the layoff) and found that one needed a background of previous volunteerism and connectedness to make an effective application. What happened to me is that I was somewhat driven away into urban ghettos for three-plus decades, living in relative individual freedom, but disconnected from shared burdens and responsibilities. The moral climate regarding sexual “abnormality” (it’s hard to find a word that isn’t pejorative) said, “we don’t want you sharing the burdens of real men – fighting in the Army, raising or taking care of kids.” Fine, most of the time we didn’t have to think about it. In the 80s we fought for our own lives as AIDS marched through like a tornado. The storm let up, and in the 90s the concerns over shared burden ran underneath the more obvious debates about equal rights – to marry, to adopt, to serve in the military. Most gay men really could do these things well if allowed to. In my own case, it is less clear.

After Katrina, I did volunteer some in the Red Cross call center here in Falls Church. 75% of the time the best we could do was refer the callers to an overloaded FEMA 800 number for aid. When there was a real problem, I could get a mental health professional or nurse to come into the cubicle and talk about issues like diabetes medication for two hours with the client. That was rewarding. At a visible Washington church that I know pretty well, some high school and college kids raised money and went down to New Orleans for a week, and then some adults went down later. They both reported that they were not allowed inside wrecked and flooded homes because of the liability risk connected to mold, but did light work cleaning streets. You wonder why the efficiency of corporate America (Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, etc) isn’t delivering more premanufactured housing to let the victims start over on higher ground; there may (despite all of the Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter “service” volunteerism) more efficient ways to help people after disasters that bit by bit. I do need to find something, however small and low-level, to do about this.

Today there is renewed talk of familial and community interdependence, because of the developing critical issues like global warming (carbon footprints), and the possibility of having to manage a pandemic (using recovered people as caregivers). Sometimes it's easier for people to see themselves in terms of family, and they will expect others to do the same. We face problems that indeed test our foundation free market economy, and whether the market ("extreme capitalism") will always be a moral denominator. Although the personal concern over volunteerism and participation is strong, it does not seem that our institutions (that is, the news media, the columnists, and the politicians – on either right or left) know how to debate these moral issues in terms of sharing of responsibilities and even “sacrifice” – with parasitism the ultimate “vice.” The ideas we had about “public morality” seventy years ago presumed all of this without discussion. One problem even then was class and race – rich people often got “out of it.” Today, responsibility has a lot to do with individual family circumstances (including filial responsibility, which seems so inequitably distributed by just plain luck) as well as personal brain wiring. It needs to get back into the debate, and that’s hard in a partisan climate.

older "Pay Your Bills and Pay Your Dues" essay (2004)