Sunday, September 30, 2007

Recruiters use social networking sites for references; banks use Facebook groups to attract customers

On Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007 the Wall Street Journal, on p D1 print, had a story on using social networking sites for pre-interview reference checking. This story is by Anjali Athavaley, and is titled “Job References You Can’t Control.” The link is here: (This may require registration or an on-line subscription or payment.) This practice has been known for a while with “professional profile management sites” like, but it seems to be becoming more common with Myspace and Facebook., where "friends" or other linked people provide a reference list that could be checked even before calling someone in for an interview, as well as sites like LinkedIn. In some fields, recruiters may actually want to see that candidate promote themselves professionally through social networking sites. It might seem logical to do this with jobs requiring referral lists (as for sales or commission business). One has to be careful about the “friends” on these lists because one cannot be sure how each “friend” will speak about the candidate.

This practice does not necessarily involve using search engines to find out what a person says online, what others say about the person outside the social networks, or what a person’s political or religious views are, outside of a finite network. So it may seem like a more acceptable “best practice” to some recruiters and employers. They perceive that this is like "word of mouth" recruiting of "people you know" in the bricks and mortar world.

The New York Times Magazine today (Sept. 30, 2007), p. 50, has a story by Rob Walker, “A For-Credit Course: To gain campus recognition (and customers), a bank hooks up with the Facebook social-networking site.” Chase is offering the service through a Facebook group and has a program of rewards with “karma points.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Interim jobs: sometimes very short term, sometimes new careers

After my layoff and forced retirement from my information technology “career” at the end of 2001 (my job lasted 92 days after 9/11), I did drift quite a bit. For quite a while, the information technology job market tanked for those who had not specialized in exactly the hottest skills, that kept behaving like moving targets.

I started exploring the interim job market. In April, while in a gay bar on a Saturday night, I spotted an ad in a local magazine to call for contributions for a symphony orchestra. I called, and in a few days I was starting a new part-time job from 5-9 in the evenings, calling for contributions. It was not a high-pressure environment, and it became somewhat a world of its own. The non-profit euphemism for this is “development.” There is “new money” which pays a higher commission, and the best was “blue money,” which was new money on credit. Pledges were red money. At the end of the shift you turned in your leads (it was all paper). You got paid hourly and commissions. This did soften the landing. There was the stability of going to work again, with a short commute even, and the idea that there could be some hidden advancement. I also got complimentary concert tickets. State law allowed simultaneous unemployment collection, subject to some formulaic limits.

I stayed in this for fourteen months, so there was some stability. It worked out pretty well. The atmosphere was cordial enough. Some workers made negative comments (“You’re working in a phone bank; these are not bad people but it’s the only kind of job they can get.”) That’s pretty heavy.

By now I was hearing more talk about the nature of “retirement.” You didn’t stop working, but work slows down, becomes intermittent or sporadic, and is less pressured. You gravitate toward what you want to do. I see that I wrote about this in early 2006, here: “Jobs for the Recently Retired” Feb. 27, 2006.

I was also reading that job counselors recommended “interim jobs.” Just be practical, don’t expect too much.

Then TSA (the Transportation Security Adminsitration) came to town (in August 2002) and had an open house for airport screeners at a local hotel. You showed up at 7 AM with an application, and would have a day of “assessments.” You could get hired that day, subject to background checks. I butted out after confusion over the pay scales.

In early 2003, I got a contract writing a certification test in business ethics. That was interesting, and I thought it could lead to more freelance. I was still calling for the orchestra. I would check out other things. There was a gig with a bank that wanted to set up a life insurance pyramid game converting whole life to term. Makes sense, but manipulating people that way is not game for me.

I started looking at collection agencies. One turned me down as not assertive enough (there were three interviews), but another hired me on the spot. I worked two months for RMA, which is one of the reputable companies that actually trains people and follows the FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act). Most of these operations are in the Midwest, where the time zones work well. I actually made goal both months, but had to move back east for family reasons.

Back here, I tried symphony subscription sales for a different company, but quit abruptly when people I called complained that we were acting illegally, calling later than allowed by law (9 PM). Again, the operation was all manual, with no computers. Subscriptions are hard to sell. I sold four in six weeks.

I would look at other things, even driving a taxi. One company called me out of the blue for a job as a “team leader” of “youths” going door-to-door or trolling shopping malls to sell excess restaurant meals or the like, with part of the proceeds to raise money for charities. A number of jobs still involve door-to-door.

We’ve all heard a lot about the tightening of telemarketing and calling. The public as a whole does not welcome sales calls of in person visits. The world is a different place than it was a half century ago when “home service” insurance agents were common, and cold-call selling (either by phone, in person, or Internet) has a bad reputation with many people. Yes, I don’t like the idea of a job that is the only kind of job someone can get. That sounds like a bad reflection. But, times did change on people.

In the spring of 2005, I got invited again to be considered for a life insurance agent. The company did want to find somebody with technical business knowledge, which twelve years of I.T. in a life and annuities company would provide. But I am not someone to go out and “recruit” and troll for leads. I don’t have the social connections, and I think that this sort of business is based on older models of social interaction that I don’t fit.

I covered the substitute teaching experience in the last blog. (Redux: Today, I went to Harpers Ferry, W Va, to take some pictures. A school field trip, to see the museums related to John Brown and the fight to abolish slavery just before the Civil War arrived from a nearby town in Maryland and descended upon the eatery. Everyone was well-behaved and interested in what they were seeing, from what I could overhear. I wish all classes had been like that in my experience. Teachers, this is a good report.)

There is indeed a tendency for knee-jerk reactions and to quit interim jobs suddenly when they can lead to “problems” or even to legal liabilities or exposures. With low pay, it seems that there is little money to lose. It’s a two-way street.

Of course, one can look at things one can do from home and earn surprising money (including blogging, look at Sept. 14 2006 in this blog, Business 2.0, "Blogging for Dollars"). There are other new opportunities with "homework" such as my blog article "Customer Service Agents Can Work from Home," Aug 13, 2007, here. Homework ("la tarea") sometimes turns into piecework -- but even that can work.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Substitute Teacher resignation: a work experience filled with rewards and ironies

Today, I have a personal “press release” which I somewhat regret. I have stopped substitute teaching and asked that my name be removed from the Fairfax County Public Schools lists.

One immediate reason is logistics. With only FCPS (not Arlington – more below), it is getting more difficult for me to guarantee that I can arrive on time to the assignments that I can take, and they are farther away. Practical concerns and circumstances (an old car, global warming, gas prices) have become more important than they were even a few months ago. I had resumed subbing for FCPS only, after a year’s hiatus, which I had discussed particularly on July 27.

I had discussed some of the issues with substitute teaching on this and other blogs (back in late July, and previously in December). I want to wrap this up today and move on. But I know from experience that people (students, including graduated students who know me and who now may be in college, teachers, and administrators) find these blogs and I do want to share some more worldviews. I came into this as a “retired” person from the real world, someone pursuing some other somewhat visible interests that eventually came into conflict with teaching. I believed that my “real world” experience would be of value to students and schools, and to some extent they actually were. I’d like my three elapsed years with school systems (and over 250 school days in extremely varied environments) to be of benefit.

I have said on my blogs and websites that substitute teachers should not work forever without seeking licensure. That gets into my second reason for leaving. It is simply not realistic, at my age (64) and with some other circumstances to commit to a licensure course (I have looked at a number of programs) and make the financial investment, given the record of certain kinds of problems, which I detailed in the blogs in July. Curiously, some school administrators did not seem to realize that short-term subs (in Virginia) need not be licensed.

However, if this is so, it speaks to the question of the current teacher shortage, and the best strategy for recruiting new teachers. Virginia has a program called “Career Switcher” which I have looked at. A number of local universities (Old Dominion, George Mason, UVA, and George Washington) offer programs of widely varying cost and schedules. GWU, for example, requires more course hours to offer licensure in all three neighboring jurisdictions (including DC and MD as well as VA).

I have no statistics on how well these programs work. Some schools are more selective than others, requiring recommendations from employers specifically about working with children, and essays about one’s incentive to become a teacher. Today, The Washington Times, on p B1, has a Metropolitan headline “Teaching: Intern program a hiring pipeline: Student educators, graduates begin classes with trepidation” by Jen Waters. Generally, a period of internship (sometimes paid with a small stipend or by some tuition reimbursement) must be served before one can be hired permanently. Interns or student teachers do have complete authority to make lesson plans and evaluate and grade students. To alleviate the teacher shortage in certain areas, school districts should consider more financial assistance and more compensation to those "career switchers" in the licensure process, although they should select candidates very carefully.

One of the issues is the nature of the teaching jobs to be filled. Yes, my background is mathematics, and everyone talks about math as a shortage area. Shoe-in. Right? Not necessarily. I have the impression that the biggest need is in the lower grades, and with low-income students, and particularly with special education. News media have reported that school districts hire people from overseas as special education teachers because some many people will not deal with this.

There has been some talk in the Bush administration of hiring teachers specifically for accelerated math and science (such as at Thomas Jefferson High School) but that does not seem to have gotten anywhere. The real need seems to be for teachers who welcome the intimacy of teaching much younger and less intact children. The issue is not so much about delivering the academic content (which I obviously have; I have an MA in Math and a 159 on the 2005 Math Praxis, which is a good score). It is more about nurturing the next generation as a high personal priority.

There is a dichotomy here. As I have noted, the “real world” is much more subtle and inclusive than the world that is presented to students in approved curricula. (That’s even more the case in other subjects; mathematics ought to be less subject to controversy.) More advanced students, as AP and Honors, tend to appreciate teachers who stress the material itself and give them the freedom to work. Someone like the geeky Nick “Carroway” Fallon in “Days of our Lives” who gets a job as a science teacher may be fine with these kind of students, but that limits the story. Less mature students need and demand continuous interpersonal attention in order to learn. The kind of person who makes an effective AP teacher, from what I observed, may be quite different from an effective special ed, ESOL or elementary teacher, or even team teacher in more regular track.

In most cases, teaching is more than a job (although the “job” part – the math --could have been just fine) – is it a life. (Look at the movie “Chalk” or read Rafe Esquith ‘s book “Teach Until Your Hair’s On Fire.”) It requires some nebulous qualities like empathy and connectivity. Not everyone who has worked in the “real world” until “retirement” has enough of these qualities. Many careers don’t require it (in fact maybe are better done by focused individualists with less empathy). Our technological culture for the past thirty years has encouraged certain people (myself included) to isolate themselves into specialized communities, and not relate to people through more patterns of familial intimacy. Some people might not fit the demands of the teaching career switch.

That brings me back to the whole substituting experience. Although subs make out profiles of subjects and schools, in general temporary subs encounter an extreme range of situations. To be fair to everyone, they should be able to handle the difficult or intimate situations as well as the “easier” ones. (School districts could well consider limiting the distance a sub may live from a profiled school and require that they can handle all grades in a smaller area.) In Arlington, I did develop a reputation for allowing discipline problems with certain kinds (usually low-income or otherwise troubled) of students who did not respect me. (Yup, they were the kind who might “Ask”: “Do you have kids? … Why not?” So they didn’t feel I deserved to be there. I was no male role model that they could recognize; I had never developed fathering skills; these kids really needed loco parentis.) There are always some students who intentionally challenge (or "take advantage of") the "pseudo-authority" of a sub (someone who is not a "real teacher" unless he or she really was a regular teacher), and school districts might reasonably expect subs to be expert in administering manipulative, situational discipline, which I am not. (Oh, they say, "all kids do!", but, No, they don't.) This raises some moral and ethical questions (I call them “paying your dues”) that go beyond the scope of this entry; I have taken them up elsewhere and will do so again soon. I covered these in detail in the July 25 blog entry. I also feel that this sort of problem is particularly relevant to older males. If I were much younger, preferably still in college, and made up my mind to become a teacher before my life crystallized in other directions, this “reconciliation” (Clive Barker’s term (Imajica) for people from totally different worlds or mindsets or cultures coming into contact over a time-warp) would be much less of an issue. That is how I lost Arlington (above) and wound up in a logistically difficult position.

Furthermore, some kids may pick up on my "nature" and they know that I do not have full legal equality in some areas. If the federal government (and Commonwealth of Virginia) define me as legally as a "second class citizen," how can I expect underprivileged kids to respect my "authority" in the classroom? As Spock would have said, it doesn't "compute."

There was indeed a repeatable pattern, in several schools (more middle than high). Certain kinds of students needed to have an "authority figure" to interact with and I refused to act that way; I just quietly wrote them up. Even other students complained a few times that I would not take enough direct action in class (although I did throw a few people out of class and did call security a couple times). When this feedback occurs several times over many months (maybe 5 out of 200 assignments), it indicates a problem. However, I maintain that this problem is inherent in using unlicensed subs, who will not know how much action they should take. Schools may assume that parenting experience might be enough as a guide to discipline, but I do not have that. I can help only a student who wants to be there, and that follows the pattern of the "real world" that I come from (I guess the "real world" is not the same as "real life").

There were some wonderful experiences, particularly with FCPS. Honors and AP students actually become more productive if a sub simply trusts them (with "enlightened self-interest", Ayn Rand style) and lets them work. One English class had honors students writing fairy tales (“Once upon a time there lived a… “) A couple of the stories were good enough for commercial publication. I had one honors chemistry class for seven days (over two assignments) and, with just undergraduate memories of chemistry, they did fine on classwork, with an overhead projector and search engines looking up topics like electronegativity. (I remember their tests: multiple choice where they had to explain the answer to get full credit.) An AP section actually made a movie about how to teach chemistry (with the students playing characters named after Periodic Table elements, some of them fictitious). Later I would learn from the regular teacher that the students had done very well on both the SOL’s and finals after seven days of me. That particular class got to watch the film “Copenhagen”, based on the play by Michael Frayn, about a speculated 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, with the moral point being that one has to be very careful about “publishing” one’s own scientific discoveries, even when one “owns” them. I remember saying that to the class, and then I got bit.

At that same school, someone would find some of my Internet writings, an issue that I have discussed before. I detailed the incident on this blog July 27 (involving actually a fictitious screenplay, somewhat patterned after the Lifetime film “Student Seduction” which I had watched the weekend after my first sub assignment!). But there is an important “scientific” (psychological) point to add. When someone reaches advanced age without some kind of emotional empathy and connection to others partially based on the others’ needs – and in today’s culture one may actually have been able to live quite productively that way – one can be at increased risk of “temptation” and of becoming a mark. (In my own personality, I see "disconnection" as related to unwillingness to wield direct authority for its own sake.) Certain people were “offended” by the idea that I would “admit” that, given what they think they can infer from it. Temptation itself is OK – after all, it occurs in the New Testament to Christ himself, but only in one episode; Christ outgrows it. For a normal human to outgrow it is another thing. Andy Warhol wrote once “I need some responsibility hormones and some reproduction hormones.” One needs something like that. But this, still, is about fantasy and admitting that temptation can still happen. (Actually, in the aforementioned commercial film, the “mark” is a normally married female teacher; she is still falsely accused. Constant sensationalized media attention to these issues have made school administrators very skittish about Internet writings by students and especially teachers. Remember, after John Mark Karr’s false “confession” the media started talking about substitute teachers with some derision. I suppose now bloggers like me just throw gasoline on the fire.)

Actually, earlier, I had gotten to talk (during the “planning period”) to social studies teachers at another FCPS high school about COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), pointing out the court papers linked from my own websites (risky to bring up), and mentioning that I had heard the Supreme Court oral arguments. The reaction was mixed, with some teachers fascinated, and others unaware of the scope of the controversy surrounding Internet censorship (it is about implicit content as well as “pornography”). That general situation I found consistently in workroom lunches. The teacher had their sheltered world, and I was the outlier, the outsider. I had to “prove myself” maybe, but only because they had carved out a separate “dominion” and had to “dececoncile” it. I think of teaching as manipulation, not content, and not artistic; yet teachers sometimes are authors or auteurs otherwise -- but usually within the confines of their culture, as with the Washington Times article today on the book trilogy "The Door Within" (by Wayne Batson and his middle school students in Maryland), or the film "Freedom Writers."

But then my outspokenness (the incident above) arose when I mentioned my domain to a teacher in connection with newspaper editorials over bloggers and federal campaign finance reform –- a legitimate subject in high school -- exploded, as I said. It brings up the question: when someone writes something on the Internet and self-publishes it with no supervision and no monetary gain, what is most important: the message in the content itself (the screenplay had plenty of genuine political speech), or what might be inferred about the author for having posted it? That is somewhat the heart of the debate over “reputation defense” that high school and college kids surely need to know about. What is even more shocking is the parallel to the convoluted legal reasoning justifying the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military: that a voluntary statement suggesting a “propensity” to do something undesirable is justification for removal, even if the statement is protected speech. Perhaps that's because the "admission" suggests bad faith and therefore causes the rest of one's online speech to be viewed as "conversation" rather than as "literature," where hypothetical speculation may be appropriate. I would, in my own way, become a casualty of DADT, or of the presumptive social thinking that creates it. This story (a bit cryptic here) almost makes a movie. Don’t forget, as I found out on one assignment, the Lions Gate is a real place in Greece.

Summary: Many of the more mature students did learn from me, because I came from the individualistic outside "real world" and could share with them what it expects (particularly in the "real" workplace). These students seem to appreciate an educational viewpoint that would not leave out unpleasant but truthful things to "protect" them. (I recall kids in one honors English class complaining to me, "She treats us like babies" and applauding when I returned.) Yet, my world had been so individualized, so self-focused, that it did not seem credible to kids who needed social contact, constant interaction, supervision -- to be part of the lives of all adults around them. I don't know if, after thirty years of such a "different life" in urban exile, a switch to teaching and the emotional demands it makes was realistic.

(See also 9/1r posting here: "The best teacher I ever had.")

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Opinions and Fact: eldercare, birth rates, and filial responsibility laws

Another big area, related to health care, for “Opinion and Fact” is eldercare, and the creeping concern about filial responsibility laws.

Here there is a need to exhibit a lot of facts (“incidents” in the jargon so far) – the replacement birthrate, what the birthrates are by ethnic group in various countries. It’s also necessary to have some data on longevity and nursing home stays.

Then one comes to an exhibit on the murky area of “filial responsibility laws”. Some of this has to do with the Medicaid lookback provision, which was recently increased. But the other big area, which many people know relatively little about, is the “poor laws.” In about 28 states, there are laws that can force adult children to support indigent parents and, in a few states, more distant relatives like siblings or grandparents.

The “facts” (again on the incident table the way I have laid things out) would consist of the actual statutes in each applicable state, with web references to the actual statutes in each state, with discussion of unusual features (like distant relatives) or time limits (like a limit on how many years support), or legal paradigms, as Pennsylvania’s quiet 2005 move of filial responsibility from welfare code to family code (as if “deadbeat adult children” were as objectionable as “deadbeat dads”). There would also be entries on attempts at enforcement, such as a bizarre case in South Dakota.

As for political arguments, they do tend to be nebulous, because they depend so much on underlying philosophical distribution and issues concerning unequal distribution of wealth among families.

But when you also do this for related areas like health insurance and gay marriage, you begin to see how all the pieces fit.

I have an entry on this blog about filial responsibility laws Aug. 7, and pointers to the July entries in the “Bill retires” blog.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Opinion and Fact knowledge: self-publishing and unprecedented concerns

Another topic area to analyze in terms of knowledge management is self-publishing. This discussion or knowledge body addresses the fact that modern technology (most of all, the Internet, including P2P, and other practices like desktop publishing) gives individuals (and very small companies) the ability to reach a global audience with little capital (“free entry”) and sometimes surprising effectiveness.

Compared to many other topics, this subject matter leads itself to the venting of many opinions, and sometimes it is difficult to structure the concerns. It’s valuable to document the opinions in a database, and yet still one wants to find as many factual incidents as possible.

One of the biggest concerns has appeared in the past two years or so: employers have become concerned about what their job applicants and associates say about themselves, and moreover about what others say about them, on the Web. One can document the ethics, the legal questions, the technical uncertainties (identifying wrong people, for starters), and the comparison to other methods of evaluating and background-checking applicants. But what one really wants is incidents tracked back to definitive stories, such as the March 7 entry on this blog about the law student who couldn’t get a job apparently because of what people written about her. There had been earlier stories, back to the late 1990s, such as an Arizona nurse who was fired for a pornography site with her husband, but the media reports of such incidents seem to have accelerated since about 2005, as social networking sites grew.

Another subtle issue comes from an artifact of the ease of Internet postings. Stories that are factually true and possibly embarrassing to individuals stay on the Net for years, whereas in the world of print they would have been hard for employers (or suitors or spouses) to find. Some well-regarded organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center have proposed theories that different legal standards might have to apply to “amateur” net material than print. If so, it is extremely complicated, affected by the structure of pages (dynamic or static, database driven or not) and whether the publisher keeps the material free to viewers indefinitely (that is, the “business model” of the publisher or individual). Conceivably, later it could be affected by content labels and various search engine algorithms and associated metatags. An analyst would have to “ask the right questions in the right order” and organize the arguments and counterarguments, and then prompt journalists and contributors to track specific incidents (with specific employers, for example) back to their original fact-checked sources. If enough data were collected, a disturbing pattern would become clear, I think, which could prompt action both by organizations (ICRA) and ISPs and software vendors, and maybe even legislation.

In general, there is some degree of concern over self-promotion and the degree of people to be “famous” without accepting the responsibility (even when measured in terms of competitive financial results) that might go with the fame. At the same time, knowledge databases like Wikipedia have had to deal with the same potential abuse of otherwise objective articles.

The other big area would be all of the censorship concerns, which have a long history with the CDA and COPA (as documented on this blog. Not only would all of the arguments and opinions be documented, but so would various other items of proposed legislation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Functional write-up: how the "Opinion and Fact" database would work with the health care debate

In writing system specs, one usually describes inputs, procedures, and outputs. Here, with the “knowledge management” system suggested yesterday, it’s first a good idea to run down how it might work.

Today, let’s take up how the health care debate would look.

Think about what some of the major arguments are. In general, the debate revolves around the question of whether a private, for-profit insurance system should fund health care, or whether there should be a single payer system, with the government as the payer.

What are some of the issues with the private system?

One “complaint” is that insurance companies have a supposed fiduciary duty to deny claims and screen out customers with pre-existing conditions. So one codes that argument and a description of it into the system. What is the “source”? There could be a number of sources, but one obvious source is a segment of Michael Moore’s film “Sicko.” (The “open source” contributor would identify that film with a specific value for a “source_Code”). One could code that film as the source, and perhaps a timestamp in the film where it is addressed. One notes the “publisher” (here, since it is a movie, Lions Gate , actually a distributor), and similar bibliographic information. (It’s likely you’ll find this in op-eds by Moore, or in past or future books.)

But, wait a minute. Moore here is a “columnist” (last blog). He is giving us a “slanted” view. What makes the claim more convincing is specific incidents. For one thing, one could cite the Congressional testimony by a health insurance former executive, in the film, but one would go to a more definitive, “objective source,” such as the minutes of Congressional testimony (at the Library of Congress).

On the other side of the argument, John Stossel mentions (on the ABC 20-20 program) the waiting lists in Canada and Britain. As an “incident” one might quote specific waiting list times for specific procedures (if Stossel or some other source has the numbers), and one might break them down into therapeutic and diagnostic procedures. (Do Canadians get screening at recommended intervals?) One could express this by refining the coding structure of the argument code itself. (My own sample DB on my own laptop has eight positions).

A more serious refinement of the waiting list controversy occurs when Canadian citizens go to the US for early diagnosis and pay for it out of their own pockets. (Go here: and look at the Aug. 22 entry). That entry mentions specific sources that could be re-checked and entered on an incident database as documented “facts”. Then we lead to more speculative questions, that are worthy of documenting even if experiential evidence is less convincing one way or another. Is Canadian care dependent on the availability of blood family members to be present during that recuperation? That’s a good question to ask about US Medicare, when deciding whether to do risky surgery on an infirm patient over a certain age. Some of these questions have serious social implications for others. That’s true in a broader way, because government funding of health care costs would make private behaviors more public business. Once these arguments are documented and traced back to creditable sources, one gets a good feel for the entire scope of the problem. It seems inevitable that individual "moral hazard," at least to the point that it is attributed to behavior (and lifelong health habits, while add to later life health expenses), remains a big issue.

Of course, once original sources are given (either for the “slanted” opinions or for the underlying facts in standard journalistic stories) one would like to provide the visitor the option to purchase a copy of the original research through an Amazon or BN-like credit card processing system, with appropriate distribution of royalties to original sources. That could be a big deal to negotiate. But it ought to be done.

It would also be good to provide links to resumes of the contributors, and mechanisms to audit and verify the facts online and show who has verified them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Journalists and columnists: they both add to a knowledge base

Recently there has been a lot of attention to open source and online resources developed from them, especially encyclopedias like Wikipedia. In recent months I’ve addressed the pressure on these sites to fact check their material and cite external, independent sources, which in fact they are addressing. I’ve also said that there ought to exist a credible and canonical format for “opinion,” with ways to link the opinions and track the “facts” or “incidents” that generate these opinions all the way back to standard journalistic or academic sources.

A column by English teacher and professor Erica Jacobs in the DC Examiner, p. 34, today Monday, Sept. 17, 2007, “The Education of a Columnist,” discussed the kinds of writing that students usually find as sources as they do research. She stressed the difference between standard newspaper or periodical stories, which must be as objective and factual as possible, and op-ed columns, which are by their very nature “slanted.” Yet op-eds by established columnists, politicians or “think tank” personalities will often contain valuable insights into the deeper debates underneath some of our issues, and they are in some sense “para-factual.” They will often cite specific incidents (sometimes without detailed attribution) that themselves could be rechecked. One can look at the many columns on health care, social security, global warming, eldercare demographics, Iraq, or even gay marriage and gays in the military to see this.

In the coming columns I’ll document some details as to how this kind of system could be constructed and maintained, with something like a “system spec” in various phases (the what’s (information requirements), the inputs and outputs, the methods or procedures), mostly in non-technical language. I’ve addressed this on this blog on Nov. 13, March 27, July 16.

The end result could be an open-source (relatively speaking) system and applications that outlines the various positions people take on any of these issues or sub-issues. If it was complete enough and well enough done, one wonders, what next? It’s true that if something like this existed, it would be difficult for politicians to push a one-sided approach to any issue past the public. (Presumably, Bush couldn’t get away with his tax cuts for the rich, maybe, and so on. Actually, the subtlety cuts both ways, as both the right and left want, in various ways, to control people.)

An application like this could be useful to schools and universities, if all of the sources could be validated or audited. Maybe it would take five years or so to become a common Internet institution. Would it block out the old way of doing research? That sounds like a fantasy relative to the real world, but the desire to “master and manage all knowledge” always brings up that question.

Correlated posting (today) on "knowledge management" in an information technology shop context, here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Parade magazine on electronic privacy, and employers: should they ask about online presence?

Today’s Sunday preview of Parade Magazine (in The Washington Post) has a high-level article by Sean Flynn “New Technologies raise the question: Is anything private anymore? In our digital world, it may be impossible to protect personal information”, on p. 4, Sept. 14, 2007.

Flynn points out a number of “big brother” devices: consumer databases (in construction at credit reporting companies for decades), surveillance cameras, electronic tollbooths (I could add Metro Smart Cards, which could be engineered to work in multiple cities), and last but not least, social networking sites. And, as Flynn rightfully points out, many parties do not have an scruples about mining such information. Divorce lawyers do it all the time.

Privacy has indeed turned on its head. Thirty years ago, gay rights was argued largely as a privacy issue. Now it is an equal rights issue because everyone wants to be public (making some of the logic of the military “don’t ask don’t tell don’t pursue” – Bill Clinton’s innocuous-sounding formulation in 1993 -- way behind the times technologically).

Flynn plays the employment card. Flynn writes about teens and young adults: “They’re grown up chronicling their lives on popular social networking sites like Myspace or Facebook for easy retrieval by friends or strangers alike. But some young people don’t realize what was funny to college buddies might not amuse a law-firm recruiter.” I reported a specific incident with law firm jobs on March 7, 2007 on this blog. Flynn writes “Employers regularly research job applicants on the Internet.” True. And there is a real danger they can pull up the wrong person on a search engine, with the misidentified target never knowing he or she lost an opportunity that way. I’ve already written that employers have an ethical duty to clean up this practice. (And I don't see what's wrong with a picture of someone riding a mechanical bull in a bar.)

Let’s put it down. Employers’ HR departments should announce personal blogging policies and social networking policies, and post them for associates and for job applicants, conspicuously, in job application scripts of their websites. The policies ought to depend on the job being applied for (as noted in the entry on Monday Sept. 10). Rather than troll and gumshoe with search engines, employers should ask about existing online presence when it reasonably might be job-relevant. I wonder if HR will coin a new item or jargon: "reputation policy." Ask and Tell.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The best teacher I ever had (for US History, junior year)

The very best teacher that I had was my eleventh grade Va. and U.S. History teacher, Mr. Simon Korczowski. I took his course in the 1959-1960 school year at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA, then one of the top academic public high schools in the nation. (Note the name of the course: Virginia comes first!) The classroom was in the first floor of the three-story brick building that has since been torn down and is now being replaced with a four-story structure. On the first floor, it faced the athletic field and running track, leading to Washington Boulevard, and impressive sight when snow-covered. My seat was on the left side of the room, near the window.

Mr. Korczowski had been decorated in World War II and had quite a bit of military bearing (he wore a bow tie to class), but had, in the era since the War, developed progressive political views that he wanted to teach students to figure out for themselves. We think of military people as being conservative, but many liberals are former military heroes.

What made him controversial at the outset was his “all essay test” policy. Each test would have some identifications and four essay questions. As the year progressed, most tests offered a choice (answer any four of six). The final exam had a choice of eight out of twenty-five questions (I remember a question about the significance of the Fall Line). He graded hard. On my first test, the third Monday of the year, still September, I got a 79 (that was a “D” on the school scale). I got 15 out of 20 off on a question on mercantilism (and the role of "mother country") in the colonies. (So, history teachers, make sure you ask a question on this on your first test this fall.) But I made a 93 on the second test and got a B for a the quarter and eventually squeaked out an A on the course. They say (at least the character Ephram says this on TheWB Everwood), "junior year is the hardest year." Right?

He also gave notorious pop quizzes, mostly on current events. These were the post-Sputnik Cold War days late in the Eisenhower administration (before Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis).

He was trying to teach students to connect the dots – exactly what we blame our intelligence services for not doing today. He spent a lot of time on the social issues of slavery, race, reconstruction, segregation, and Brown v. Board of Education. “With all deliberate speed” the Arlington school system had barely made any progress then with desegregation. (Arlington, however, for the time, was a progressive community in a conservative state, a relative conclusion that I would learn quickly with my lost semester at William and Mary in 1961; look at Farmville in the early 60s.) But he wanted the students to “get it.” Some of the exam questions (especially about Reconstruction) were themselves controversial. He would insist on very complete answers to his essay questions, taking points off for “leaving out” major reasons or lines of argument behind some particular event. He wanted the student to understand why things happen the way they do.

Once, he broke down, and the mid-term, because of school pressure, had one day of multiple choice – just 20% of the mid term. When he did give the test, each question allowed more than one correct response and the student had to find all of them.

We also had an in-class book report toward the end of the year, on John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” I got an 85 on that. He marked off on those papers because, as he said, “I didn’t learn anything.”

In twelfth grade, for Va. and U.S. Government, I had Stanley Book, a younger man with a similar zeal. Again, maybe 2/3 of the tests were essay. The course was more like an AP course today, a kind of college “political science” course that maybe Stephanopolous could give at Columbia. We had a student teacher the second quarter, and I remember the mid-term. “Compare communism and democracy.” A better term for the latter (if you follow The Washington Times) would be “liberal democratic capitalism.” Indeed, the neo-conservative Bush administration is coming to grips with the difficulty of exporting that to the Muslim and other parts of the developing world.

I would say that these two teachers were quietly preparing the next generation of activists. Mr. Korczowksi’s style of reasoning was very much on my mind as I pondered the debate on the military gay ban in 1993 and finished my first book in 1997. Without having been taught by him, there would have been no book. He taught us to see past the superficial arguments and realize what would happen if the same arguments could be applied to other similar issues. (Read in a modern “projective geometry”: if you can ban gays from the military, you can find reasons to ban gays from other things.) His way of thinking would take down “don’t ask don’t tell,” lead to a razor-sharp view of affirmative action, and would prevent misadventures oversease, and it would keep a people sharp enough to see the real dangers coming. (Yes, 9/11 would have been prevented if only a few more people had connected the dots.)

On one sub assignment some time back, the tenth grade kids were supposed to write current events reports on newspapers. The Washington Post that day had major stories on Saudi Arabia and on our dependence on oil imports. The kids made paper airplanes out of the physical instances of the stories. They had not a clue. And they will inherit this world from us.

Update: 10/1/2007.
Check the essay by Fairfax County VA and George Mason University English teacher Erica Jacobs, "The meaning of a teacher's legacy" in the DC Examiner, p 32 in print, Oct. 1, 2007, here. Note how kids feel about "just subs" (my subsequent Sept. 24 posting in this blog).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

AARP UHC ad raises question about "objective" public speech on political issues

Recently I’ve noticed some television ads sponsored by the AARP for senior health insurance from United Health Care. The ads appear to appeal to people over 50 who may still be below Medicare eligibility age. The ad points out that the policies would cover the consumer when traveling if he or she took the care to pick an in network provider in order to get in-network rates. "You can see any doctor without referrals ... but if traveling anywhere in the U.S, you have the choice of staying within network to save money." Sounds benign.

First, a point about how most health insurance works. Typically, the consumer must meet an annual out-of-pocket deductible before the company starts to pay claims. But even while paying out of his own pocket, the consumer gets the benefit of deep discounts from providers who have contracts with the health insurance company. That’s one reason why having health insurance is so important and why getting the uninsured covered is a big social and political issue.

That’s actually part of the rub. Why should a solo person without insurance have to pay more for the same services, some people ask. The discounts are enormous. In 2005, I had a cat scan that listed for $1750 and the allowed price with the UHC discounts was only $375, a discount over 75%.

Even so, the out of pocket costs for many people middle aged or over or with some pre-existing condition are enormous. There is a lot written about this all of the time.

But what I am getting to in this posting is a point about speech. The individual making the sales ad is paid to make the AARP look appealing. In fact, it may very well be a good policy. Since I have UHC through ING as a retiree, I know that, although the premiums and deductibles are heavy, the company as a whole has a good reputation in the market as far as I can tell, and my experience with the company processing claims immediately has been good. The website is pretty effective and secure. Still, on a retiree’s cash flow situation, the health insurance premium and deductible issue is a very big deal.

My point is, what if it was my job, as a 64 year old, to write and speak or act that ad on television? It’s a reasonable question. AARP and associated companies sound like a reasonable place for retirees to look for jobs and income. They are. But think what the ad does. It makes the deal from AARP/UHC look better than it really is, even though it is probably competitive in the market. It masks the deeper question, about what our health care policy ought to be.

If it is my job to advertise a particular health care policy endorsed by the AARP, however well intended, then I no longer have the right to be publicly involved in the health care debate as an individual. I no longer have the right to be “objective” in public with my questions or statements. After all, I have (in this hypothetical situation) been paid to represent one point of view in public, to put a particular public spin on it. Lobbyists and politicians do this with “the truth” all the time. I talked about this point in the blog entry Sept. 10.

I could make a similar observation about the other side. Suppose I was working for Michael Moore. In his recent film “Sicko” he presented Cuba’s socialized medicine system as presenting good free health care for average or poor people. Other responsible media sources have questioned the credibility of Moore’s claim. Single payer or nationalized medicine (like Britain’s NHS) may have many advantages, but it may have serious shortcomings (waiting lists, rationing) too.

A reality faced by many people is that they are paid to push one point of view in public. They are paid to be “partisan.” They emphasize certain things and play down or leave out other points that may be distracting or "counterproductive" from the point of view of sales and marketing. (You don't have to "overcome objections" of the consumer if you don't let the objections get raised in the first place.) Their motive, they say, is to provide for their families. That gets to another philosophical point: one is not “objective” when taking care of a family. If you want to be “objective” don’t have kids at all. Well, then, there is still filial responsibility coming down the pike.

I could have put this little post about the AARP ad on the retirement blog or major issues blog (I’ve discussed Sicko on the movies blog), but the main issue that it raises is the speech one. At least, that’s how I see this as an AP multiple choice test question.

In fairness, AARP does have some good links on health care. There is “Creating a New Health Care Program, here. There is also a link called “Divided We Fail.”

Update: Sept. 13, 2007: An example with the global warming debate

Another example of this sort of problem comes when Dr. James Hansen, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, spoke out on his own against the blog by retired scientist James McIntyre, challenging the accuracy of some official temperature data related to the global warming debate. This was reported today in a commentary by Dr. Tim Ball and Tom Harris "New doubts on global warming in revised NASA temperature data" on p 21 of the DC Examiner. Hansen posted his views in his own blog as a private citizen (playing down McIntyre's posting) and made a presentation to Congress as a private citizen.

However, back on Jan. 29, 2006, Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times wrote a piece "Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him," link here (may require visitor registration). The story reports that "officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists." Indeed, this sounds like an ethical problem when one is paid to present a particular point of view in public, which presumably a government agency director is paid to do.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sept. 11, 2001, six years later, again a Tuesday: memories, and asymmetry

In 2001, I was living in Minneapolis, and still working in information technology for a major insurance company. I had been to Europe for two weeks at the end of April, and the summer was a bit weird. Remember, in the early part of the year the concerns (after the Bush inauguration and the aftermath of the 2000 election fiasco) had been foot and mouth disease, and Taiwan v. China. The public was not paying a lot of attention to radical Islam even though we know that the administration saw a parade of dire warnings all summer.

I made a long weekend trip back to DC the second weekend of August. On Saturday, Aug. 11, 2001 I spent the day at Rehoboth Beach, DE. There was a huge storm on the way back; I saw a tornado funnel cloud and was almost caught in a flash flood. When I got back I found that DC had an unusual manhole fire near Dupont Circle that day.

Back in Minneapolis, I moved to a larger apartment in the same highrise building on Aug. 29. I still remember “Two Men and a Truck.” I went up to Duluth (for Lake Superior Pride) and then to Thunder Bay Ontario for the Labor Day weekend. Sunday night, in the motel, I remember getting a bizarre email (about a threat) on my laptop, thinking it was spam or sent by a virus, and deleting it. I would learn later that others had gotten this email.

Back in Minneapolis, on Tuesday Sept 4, I remember, in a Walgreen’s drug store in downtown, seeing and buying a Popular Science magazine that warned about EMP attacks and how they could wipe out everything. That is done in the movie “Oceans 11” but it has to be at high altitude. I asked a couple of tech people at work about this magazine, and they thought that the scenario in the magazine was very plausible and scary.

Thursday and Friday that week, we had a virus on the servers that caused unprecedented disruption. My work station did not get infected (nor did any computer at home), but many other people did. Tech spent a few days rebuilding hard drives. This was “the real thing.”

On Monday night, September 10, 2001, I went to the penthouse swimming pool in the apartment building. For the only time in my six years of living in that building, I saw people playing water volleyball. That still sticks in my mind.

Around 1:30 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 I woke up from a nightmare, that something awful had happened in Arlington. It was graphic and I won’t give the details here, but they definitely resemble what could happen. They might have been subconsciously related to the email I got in Canada. I remember specifically being relieved to be awake in the “real world,” and not having to live through a real “Purification.”

I got up a little late, around 7:05 AM, which is 8:05 eastern time, logged on to AOL, checked my email and web domains, and had a quick breakfast. I was about to sign off at about 7:42 or so and decided to print a few pages of personal documents. I believe that they were related to a phone call I wanted to make late that day to New York to a conference on political filmmaking to be held there in October. The printing took a few minutes. I had turned off the TV and didn’t look at Internet again. I signed off, and did the five minute 1000 foot walk along the Skyway to work. Once I got there, things were pretty normal for fifteen minutes, as I closed a couple of support tickets. Then, at 8:25 PM (9:25 EDT) a female coworker appeared in my cubicle and told me about the attacks, that had started forty minutes before. It was not possible to get to Yahoo! or CNN for any information. I went downstairs to operations, where they had a Jumbotron Cable hookup, and saw the picture of the Pentagon on fire. (That was about 8:45). I quickly walked back to the apartment, turned on the TV, and saw Peter Jennings with the two burning WTC towers behind him in the background. Almost immediately, one of the towers evaporated in a pillar of smoke, to his back, but right on live television. It was almost a minute before he realized that the South Tower had collapsed.

We had an unusual team building even that day. It was a cruise on the St. Croix River, departing from a town SE of St. Paul. We did not cancel, although many companies did. (We had done this a couple of other times, once on Lake Minnetonka). We carpooled at started the cruise at 10 AM, had lunch about 1, and got back about 4. It was a clear day, as perfect in Minnesota as had been reported in New York, and around 80 degrees. (Yes, it gets warm that far north). No one had any information. There really wasn’t that much talk about it. Some people though it could be related to Serbia or Bosnia as well as the Middle East.

On the way back, of course, we heard it all on the news. Osama bin Laden’s name was being mentioned constantly; the President had done his cross country flight to SAC at Omaha (he had been reading to second graders in Florida when he got the word). Another building, WTC 7, a 47 story building, would collapse because of fire caused by debris falling on it. We heard about other buildings around the country called "Twin Towers", as in St. Paul MN, and Silver Spring, MD (near the AFI Silver theater). Later, we would hear that Bill Clinton's first reaction was, "Osama Bin Laden did this."

That evening, I would go to a premiere (sponsored by IFPMSP) of the film L.I.E. (“Long Island Expressway) at the Lagoon Theater, a Landmark property in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. Director Michael Cuesta was present, and would be “stranded” in Minneapolis (there are far worse places!) a few days by the airline grounding. (That film would be mentioned in a screenwriting class back here in Arlington, with the role played by Brian Cox; the DVD would show editing done to take out the twin towers of the WTC.) We would see the one day gasoline panic, but we actually had a reception downtown that evening after the film. We would try to go on as normally as possible.

But life would change forever, even as the Bush administration quickly backed away from asking for personal “sacrifices.” We all know the history of the fall of 2001: the anthrax incidents, the commencement of operations in Afghanistan, the Osama bin Laden videos. It wasn’t long at all before we understood the meaning of all of this: asymmetry. If the Internet gave private citizens free entry to global audience and influence without normal competition and capital building, it could to the same for enemies. (One example that would surface is the possibility of sending Internet messages with steganography.) Osama bin Laden would stand by Hitler as an example of how one person could, somewhat unpredictably, have such a chilling and irreversible effect on history that seemed uncanny. I had never imagined that something like this would happen out of “religion.” But I can understand now how the desire to be “right” (or be self-righteous) and avoid the shame of bad karma can motivate very frightening behavior in some people.

Things would be crazy at times that fall. The very next day, Sept. 12, the media made a lot of a bust in downtown Boston, as if it would yield reassuring evidence. It did not. On Sept. 13, I got a bizarre phone call from a recruiter who wanted me to get involved in a bizarre pyramid scheme selling insurance, as if he knew my old career could end soon. Even bouncers at bars would toss people on the mistaken perception of something done. For a while, there was genuine fright.

My job and, as things have unfolded, conventional IT career would last 93 more calendar days, until Dec. 13, when I was "laid off" and retired at the same time, with it seemed a satisfactory severance. But I believe that had this tragedy not happened, with all of the economic fallout (and had there not been the accounting scandals) my "career" might have lasted somewhat longer. Some of the personal atonement must be mine.

In March 2003, I would be at another IFPMSP event in Bryant Lake Bowl when the war in Iraq would start, again on a Jumbotron screen. And now we actually wonder what for.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Online reputation: Sometimes employers need "role models" on the job; does dissemination means need to be regulated?

There’s been a lot of talk about online reputation recently, and in fact, tonight, Monday, Sept. 10, Jim Handly on Washington DC’s NBC4 station is supposed to have a report on it. I last wrote it about it here on Aug. 27 and Sept 3 but the concept seems to be evolving quickly.

Employers obviously have good reason to be concerned about employees whose job functions require them to be visible to the public. Sometimes the visibility is physical. Got to any bank, and one sees immaculate desks with bank officers ready to help customers. There is a physical (in the desk appearance as well as dress) suggestion that the customer should have confidence in the banker as a person. Of course, the concept applies in may other areas: financial planning, life insurance agents. Typically, in such positions, some degree of personalization in customer service occurs, even some smalltalk that seems a bit gratuitous to some people.

We see the concept in other areas, too, for example with teachers. There is a public expectation that the teacher is a “role model” for the child. This gets to be particularly sensitive because the concept of “role model” gets mixed up with marital complementary gender roles (and GLBT issues) in the minds of some parents. Some people do not like the idea of “pretending” to fill a role that does not match who they are. They may challenge this perception in other public spaces, like the Internet with all of its search engines, and the perception, as reports now say, can stay forever.

As noted before, the whole practice of checking employees on the Internet certainly comes into question. It’s easy to get the wrong person; common v. unusual names is an issue, and search engine companies never intended their work to be used this way (for covert “background investigations”). People sometimes find their reputations affected by comments made by others (or even photographs in public places) and sometimes these references are attributed to the wrong person. And in the business and political worlds, as we know even from recent scandals, the attitude seems to be "guilt by association, guilt by appearances, and guilty until proven innocent," the reverse of our normal legal concept of justice (as in the Bill of Rights.) And, as we noted, search engine companies are continually working with their page ranking algorithms anyway, a sensitive matter in the industry.

The issue becomes much more important with employees whose job requires them to speak publicly for the employer or represent the employer to clients in a public manner (leaving the workplace), who make decisions about customers, or who have direct reports. It’s more sensitive with jobs that involve selling work other than what the employee developed himself. (Obviously, this is a problem for the military, which has to provide oversight of soldier blogging from combat zones.) In these sorts of situations, I’ve said in the past that such persons (in such publicly visible or managerial jobs -- and that is by no means all jobs!) should not post their own views on things to public spaces (where the universe of possible visitors is not known or whitelisted) about things outside of supervision at all. (That could leave them with the option of letting organizations, which are partisan and non-objective, represent them, but that's the price for promotion or public responsibility -- all of this could make the legitimacy of some business sales models come into question -- in an automation age, does our economy really need so many publicly visible, marketing-oriented middle men to manipulate demand?) True, blogging for the company is part of some jobs, even for “professional” journalists. If such an employee accepts the supervision of a third party (which might even be a “profile management company”), or works through some formal networked journalism arrangement, then there is a distinct third party that the employer can identify and apply conflict of interest or moonlighting policies in a manner more customary in the past (before the Internet) – and indirectly, this answers some of the ethical questions about censorship. Another issue that will come up is updating compendium or encyclopedia sites (like Wikipedia) for the company, which is often anonymous but that creates obvious ethical issues.

Even if one has a job that does not involve significant "public responsibility", it's important to behave with good faith when making statements in public. Besides protecting confidential business information and trade secrets, one should avoid "gossip" about personal office matters involving coworkers or "the boss." One should be wary of portraying oneself as unsuitable for some aspects of the job, even if there are unusual external political circumstances that motivate the need to speak out publicly. (For teachers, the "role model" issue can come up, even for substitutes. The "Touching Doctrine" can matter here; see Sept 3 entry.) If one should not be in a job (even if there are ethical lapses going on at the job) then one should resign and not be there -- and then speak out. The bottom line is that the employer and customers need to have confidence in everyone at a business.

EPIC weighs in on social networking dissemination of information

I did tape Jim Handly's NBC4 evening news report (6 PM EDT) and watch it when I returned from an evening civic association walk (see the "issues blog" for today). Handly did, as has been done before, report that Reputation Defender and similar companies can try to have online reputations "cleaned". (I discussed this on Nov. 30 2006 in this blog.) He suggested "ego searching" on one's name and subscribing to alerts services.

Handly's story is called "Redeeming Your Online Reputation: Ways to Correct Some of What's Posted About You Online," here. Your reputation (in the sense of the first part of this post) may be intact, or it may be "in tatters."

According to this report, there seems to be a growing problem with the posting of information about people that would not normally have been problematic in the print age and that in the past would not have met the normal legal standards for libel or for invasion of privacy claims. Handly gives an example of a man working political jobs on Capitol Hill who was profiled in a college newspaper as having considerable credit card debt. The article is now available online and easily searched. He feels that it is embarrassing because it makes him look "irresponsible" when it refers to behavior when he was much younger, and that such information would not normally have been easily available to employers in the past until Internet and search engine technology combined with "free entry" made it an issue. But the information (in this college newspaper case) is true, and truth in our legal system is a complete defense to libel. (Remember all of Kitty Kelly's lectures on this topic, comparing the U.S. to Britain?) Some of the information that gets disseminated tends to be silly and of more concern for social relations or for dating (or marriages, whether straight or not) than for employment.

Handly reported that the Electronic Privacy Information Center is now saying that there may have to be more regulation on how personal information is disseminated or "leveraged" by others, even information that would not have been legally objectionable in the pre-Internet age. EPIC (which by the way gave a lot of support to web speakers during all the COPA litigation). In fact, EPIC has a major discussion that focuses on social networking sites, and the report has a section called frankly "Control of Information: The Means of Dissemination Matters." The link URL is this. It also has a section "Who Gets Access?" and mentions the job recruiter problem, fishing for "unedited" information about candidates. There is some detailed discussion in this essay on Facebook's News Feed and its control and its understandability. That's ironic in that Facebook was probably the first Web 2.0 SNS to offer default whitelisting, which itself can be compromised.

I generally keep these blog entries focused on issues, and mention names in a negative context only when they are already widely disseminated by the "professional" media; in most criminal matters, I mention names only when there is a conviction or confession. I don't "out" people that I see at parties or bars. (Is there a presumption of "your own business" if you're a celebrity and go to a gay disco?) Even the wide dissemination (the number of search engine "pages") is a nebulous concept; blogs and static sites run by individuals or "amateurs" often leave information up much longer than corporate sites, that tend to archive stories and want to charge for them. I can even imagine this issue coming up in the context of genuine knowledge management (Wikipedia, or expansions of open-source Wikis that I have proposed for political and social research).

Update: September 26, 2007. NBC Today and Matt Lauer talked to Myspace founders Chris De Wolfe and Tom Anderson, who did advise that people should not post on their profiles materials (pictures or text) that they wouldn't want employers to see a few years later. (They also added that now human being associates review every image posted on Myspace, hard to believe.) The idea of "social networking" may have contributed to the employer view of online blogging as "conversational" or "social" rather than "literary" (though in a self-published sense). Employers will not like to see their associates cause customer "doubts" about confidence (all the more in religious contexts); whereas literary publishers may find "doubt" the essence of academic truth seeking.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Two companies in supported self-publishing business join forces

Today, two major companies in the cooperative publishing business, iUniverse, and Authorhouse, announced that they were “joining forces to change the publishing landscape. The announcement appears on the website of the "Author Solutions" brand which appears now to represent both companies together. “Cooperative publishing” is somewhat synonymous with “supported self-publishing.” Typically, the publishing company gets the ISBN numbers and is the publisher of record for libraries, amazon, bookstores, etc., and has a contractual arrangement with the author (which can included the indemnification clause that all trade publishers have, it seems). In true self-publishing, the author sets up a proprietorship (or LLP, perhaps, or even a corporation) and gets the ISBN and manages his or her own relations with distributors (Ingram). One feature of supported self-publishing is “print on demand,” where individual copies are printed from a server upon automated order received from a server like Amazon. Typically, self-publishers make print runs and have to store copies of their own books. (iUniverse will allow individual authors to set up their own imprints, however).

In the 1960s and 1970s, until the 90s, there was an older business model of “subsidy publishing” or “vanity presses” like Exposition, which was not particularly cost-effective for many new authors.

Supported self-publishing has had to compete with or otherwise mesh with other business models for “self-promotion” including eBooks (and Softlock), and more recently Web 2.0, including blogs and social networking sites, and various other models for user generated content, often supported by cooperative advertising systems. The business models that make companies in these businesses work are volatile and change rapidly with technology and cultural use by clients, as noted in the previous blog.

On Thursday, I learned about this in an email from Susan Driscoll, President and CEO of iUniverse, which has been affiliated with Barnes and Noble.

The announcement indicates that both companies will keep using their trademarked brands and all of their imprints. No immediate major changes are expected. One of iUniverse's operations republishes books by Authors Guild members, and, ironically, Authors Guild is (or at least has been) very much opposed to the idea of "amateur" publishing, insisting that members be able to get royalties from publishers.

I published my first book with iUniverse in 2000 after my first self-published print-run (from 1997) sold out. I discussed all this on this blog in early January and on July 11. iUniverse has recently promoted high-end cooperative advertising in major newspapers, a technique appropriate for newer books from authors with enough public presence known already. Non-fiction books, although often best sellers for a while when published by celebrities, tend to become out-of-date quickly and wind up being sold heavily discounted by resellers. Fiction books may last longer and may be more appropriate subjects for this sort of advertising. The company recognizes that people have varying motives for publication (including articulating political arguments); recently there have been more emails indicating a concern for how to increase sales. Some people believe (as a “moral” matter, objecting to ego and vanity) that self-published, like trade published books, ought to be held to some kind of standard of financial success, although legally (from a fiduciary concept) this applies only when publicly held companies invest in producing the books (or other media). iUniverse has, during the past three or four years, added some "high-end" publishing services with advanced professional review and editing services, in the more costly programs (that are still moderate in price compared to subsidy publishing in the pre-Internet age). This does comport with a trend in traditional trade ("New York") publishing of expecting authors to do more for themselves, especially in book promotion, a trend often discussed at writers' conferences.

Note: Today I have a posting on Internet broadband customers losing high-speed access through accidental overuse, here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bloggers as journalists -- more numerous, more professional? what about self-promotion?

Eight percent of Americans have their own blogs, now. More women than men have their blogs. 57 million people now read blogs on the Internet with some frequency. So reports Jennifer Harper on p A1 (print) of The Washington Times on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007, in the story “Blog viewers still watch TV, read the paper: Sites for fun, not news.”

True, most readers look at blogs to be entertained, or for arcane material in their own niche worlds of special interest. Most readers still believe that news should come from conventional journalistic sources, with their professional tradition of fact-checking and objectivity. However, some blogs get better and approach traditional news media in the ability to present the public with cutting edge changes. The best blogs would normally cite factual sources carefully, and the more factual and objective a blog is, the more appropriate it is for self-syndication through RSS feeds. Nevertheless, the ultimate value of a blog may be in the speaker’s ability to inform or warn others about trends that may otherwise seem to come out of the blue once the regular media wakes up to them.

There is an ongoing debate, to be sure, about “citizen journalism” or “networked journalism”, which was discussed on this blog on July 31. The role of “citizen journalism” and its putative effects on elections was the subject of a lot of attention within the Federal Elections Commission, which had to tow the line between open speech and hidden support for politicians, as was covered in this blog previously.

There seems to be a new concern about the ways bloggers can attract attention to their work. Online encyclopedias (particularly Wikipedia) has told contributors not to express their own opinion or promote themselves, certainly understandable advice for contributing to an objective reference. On the other hand, companies look for new ways to make money off of user-generated content. Recently, there has been more attention to various practices of linking. Bloggers should be particularly careful about allowing others to pay them for reviews and promote products – an ethical question if a blogger wants to be respected as a “journalist” – but leading to other business risks, as in the article “The Dangers of Link Farming Out Paid Reviews,” here.

Search engine companies have various proprietary systems for presenting search engine results (PageRank, for example), and it’s no surprise that other operators try to come up with automated schemes to beat them. This is not so much a legal question now (other than the fact that ranking algorithms would be trade secrets, however transparent the underlying linear algebra is to mathematicians and programmers) as a business model one. Search engine companies have provided a way for novices to “promote themselves” because the mathematics of their business models work a certain way (one can track all of this in detail on Wikipedia). It’s not necessarily “enlightened self-interest” (as Ayn Rand would put it) to try to outsmart these models just to get a quick short-term advantage or payoff. (SEO, it seems, is a big business, though.) There is a new technique for providing links without appearing to affect rankings, “rel=nofollow”. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary for a webmaster with several domains when they all have legitimate content with varying context (static analysis v. “news” in my case), but they certainly seem appropriate when users are allowed to add comment links of their own (which may be automated and inappropriate). This seems to be an evolving area with more details to be discussed later.

It is interesting to experiment with the Google Toolbar and see how various corporate and organizational sites rank.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Implicit content, the play within a play, the play with more than three actors at a time

The more recent stories (released by major media outlets last week) about the writings of Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech do bring up a disturbing trend about the way “amateur” writings may be looked at – as “evidentiary” of what the writer may want to do or might actually do at some unspecified time in the future. (Tim Craig has a story in the Sept. 6 Washington Post, Metro Section, about possible litigation from survivors' families, which could result in reinforcing the "Touching Doctrine," discussed on this blog July 27, in Virginia.)

Last week, VPI officials discussed a creative writing projected handed in by Cho that had particularly violent content and apparently related to Columbine (1999). Apparently this particular manuscript had not been known to Virginia state police investigators. Professors had already been disturbed by some of his poems and by two short screenplays that were uploaded to the Internet last spring after the tragedy at VPI. The impression is that the content of his writings could have been used as justification for mandatory mental health intervention. Of course, added to all of this is the “rant” that he sent to NBC and the “manifesto” apparently found in his dorm room. It seems that the word “manifesto” has gotten to become a pejorative. But this case, however tragic, is very extreme in detail, and it shouldn't necessary set a precedent.

Of course, in addition, there is one obvious question. In any college course, writing turned in from a professor’s assignments must meet the parameters of the assignments, which usually limits the range of what is acceptable, even in a creative writing class. It’s hard to believe that the writings in question would have met reasonable academic standards. (I suppose in a screenwriting class the range of subject matter could be quite wide, however.)

But there are other examples of this sort of thing. Sunday night (Sept. 2, 2007) NBC Dateline aired a report ("Thief of Hearts") about a mortgage crook Michael Bevan Cox, who had written a novel (“The Associates”, apparently unpublished as far as I know but shown to various people) in which he outlined a “perfect crime” scenario for mortgage fraud. He proceeded to live out the blueprint of his novel, and unlike the fictitious protagonist, he finally got caught and wound up in orange jumpers.

European literature, too, as studied in high school and college, contains some examples of this sort of thing. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the second act, the prince has a visiting troupe perform The Murder of Gonzago (or Mouse-trap) to trap Claudius in his guilt. There are lot’s of examples of the “play within a play” (even in other Shakespeare) (Clive Barker has his metaphor “fish within a fish within a fish” that Gentle, to his disgust, is forced to eat in his journey through the Third Dominion of Imajica). But in the recent French period-piece film Moliere, the famous French playwright uses his writing technique to outwit a benefactor who wants to use an amateur play to win the heart of his beloved! (Or try Marc Forster's film "Stranger than Fiction" where an IRS auditor experiences being a character in a novel as it is written!) Clearly, there is a precedent in literature for the idea that stories are supposed to “incite” people.

Most of these examples concern fiction items in rather limited, person-to-person circulation. But imagine, then, what happens, as people, in a mode of self-expression, put all kinds of quasi-fictitious scenarios about themselves (or people like themselves, or like recognizable others) on the Internet. This ties into the concerns that employers have and their checking profiles and blogs of job applicants.

I would like to think it is OK to write a story or screenplay and pose a hypothetical situation. “What if …” But sometimes people take this, when written by an amateur and not produced or published in normal channels to make money in a legitimate way, as an indication of what is likely to happen. The military has this issue in the way it enforces the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for homosexuals.

My main domain ( has some sceeenplay scenarios, and I have had to reduce what I display online to deal with the “implicit content” problem. But wrongdoing in my fiction does get caught, usually.

It’s all quite quixotic. We want the Internet to be the Wild West of free expression, but we suddenly have very icy feet when faced with non-conformity to prevailing expectations of honoring certain fears and prejudices. I wonder…

Clive Barker begins his massive epic fantasy "Chinese puzzle" novel Imajica (I hope it becomes a knockout $100 million budget movie from, say, New Line) with a passage that seems applicable in a bizarre way. “It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there is only ever room for three players….It was a hard philosophy, but he claimed it was both immutable and universal, as true in the Fifth Dominion, called Earth, as it was in the Second. And more significantly, as certain in life as it was in art.” I’ll add, it’s what finally happens in the First Dominion that really matters.