Monday, November 30, 2009

What makes a blogger tick?

So, why do I blog?

I’m in transition, and I am trying to set up my next set of “quasi retirement” opportunities, but here are some of the more tangible benefits:

I am interested in doing a film project. A library of film reviews, heavily cross-referenced by category and addressing film-related as well as social issues would help build interest in potential production companies or investors. The book review library provides a similar benefit. It’s true, it would be better to have all the “movie-related” reviews on one blog instead of three, as they are now.

The reviews of classical or even rock music concerts, along with discussions of certain issues in music, would help network with newer musicians and composers.

The discussions of the “intersection data” for law and technology – in areas like COPA, “implicit content”, online reputation, DMCA, downstream liability, prospective trademark dilution, FTC or FEC regulatory attempts, media perils insurance (which could become quasi-mandatory) and employer blogging policies -- would help attract the attention of those looking for analytical help in solving some of these big concept problems that can eventually undermine freedom of speech on the Internet.

The specific blog on identity protection fits my background because in the past I have worked “professionally” on NCOA.

The blog on the information technology job market logically follows from my 31 years in conventional – mostly mainframe – I.T. I can shed a lot of light on what really goes on in recruiting, hiring and firing.

But, then, “you” ask, why play Chicken Little, with a blog about all possible disasters that might happen (as demonstrated in the movies or on the History Channel). In the Disney film, Chicken Little himself made a fool of himself on the Web in the way he drew attention to himself (to the consternation of his dad). Or why, on the issues or retirement blogs, remind viewers of how people “mess up” with upsidedown mortgages or (in the health care debate, for example) make others pay for their “behavioral” problems? Isn’t that drawing attention without walking in the shoes of others. And, wow, talking about refusing to make some kind of bodily sacrifice, of bragging about hidden shame, one asks. What existential conclusions does this lead to? Aren’t these postings a bit sadistic in intent?

Well, Okay, we can refer back to libertarian arguments about “personal responsibility”, and when it fails, it invites government to walk in and take all of our freedoms away. (The health care debate has elements of that.) That’s true, I’d like to see people get beyond “I need” and just sign prewritten form letters to their representatives in petition drives led by others. I’d like to see people learn to use their own words, at least. (Remember that “we’ll give you the words” problem?)

One problem is that, if we don’t learn to work smart on some issues, we really will see “sacrifice” (and “unfairness”) like we’ll never known it. Look at our performance on H1N1. We should be ramping up on H5N1, not just swine flu. (By the way, all flu is “bird flu” anyway.)

And there are other problems that the main media (both mainstream and gay-specific) have totally missed, like filial responsibility laws in conjunction with changing demographics and severely stressed public safety nets.

Yes, I think when an individual writer is out there and willing to stick his name and “reputation” on addressing these things, politicians eventually notice, and the end result is at least more nuanced that what we get with the traditional operations of K Street alone.

But the ultimate point is not to aim at some specific solution (even to a problem like “don’t ask don’t tell” which started me out on this journey and which, with some malignancy, spread to envelope everything else, like metaphysics – we live in a “don’t ask don’t tell” – “don’t mention” – world; sometimes intact social structures and families matter more to people than global truth). One of my points is to trace the evolution of the issues as we have them today. We migrated away from socially-driven values to individualism in a time when we thought some things were “private” – and then the Internet turned everything upside down, like an hourglass, and made the entire meritocratic world buttressed in “privacy” very social indeed.

I have talked about restructuring the blogs, and I think that may well happen by the end of 1Q of 2010. There would be fewer blogs, so that materials (especially book and movie reviews) could be crossed referenced more effectively, and it would be moved off of a “free service” onto one domain so that it could not be knocked off and could be properly insured.

Friday, November 27, 2009

DVD purchasers (and "creative users") are not pirates!

Check out this article (Nov. 20) by Electronic Frontier Foundation counsel Fred Lohmann, “DVD Customers Are Not Movie Pirates”. He makes numerous important points: innovators who would allow legally purchased DVD’s to be used at multiple locations in a house with hard drive access get sued.

Studios are also trying to prevent amateur video enthusiasts from making derivative works or parodies (I won’t get into the legal definitions here) from DVD’s to post them on YouTube and similar sites. Ironically this could become more “just legal” if based on a pirated video!

But why do studios consider this such a threat? Even actual camcorder piracy (no theater allows photography from a movie theater showing; people have been prosecuted for this), while not ethically defendable, hardly creates a real financial threat.

The real problem may be off-kilter, more like what faces newspapers. Some people see the unsupervised nature of amateur work, often done for emotional satisfaction rather than profits, as the ultimate threat to media company business models, especially to publicly traded companies that have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Virginia couple seeks Facebook fame by "crashing" White House state dinner

A Virginia couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, trying to get on the upcoming show "The Real Housewives of Washington" got into the expanded state dinner at the White House Nov. 24 even though they were not on the list as invited guests.

The interesting thing is that their ruse was discovered when they posted their pictures on Facebook. People associated with the Bravo cable network said they believed that the couple had legitimate invitations.

The dinner was so big as to require a special tent to be built, and had a vegetarian meal, for the prime minister of India (including the "chick peas" from "Cold Souls" (aka "Old Souls"!) .

Is this like the “balloon boy” case in Colorado, where a couple or persons seek easy fame?

No one knows yet how the couple got past layers of security, but lying to the Secret Service, even without an oath, can be a felony.

After first having some trouble because of misspelling in some news stories, I found the pictures on Facebook, here.

I did a little maintenance on my own account, adding my domain. I haven’t used it much yet, but that will soon pretty soon as I get more into trying to agent my screenplay “projects”.

But remember, Facebook can be very public. But that’s what some people want. Remember, at one time Facebook was limiteds to college and high school campuses, and it was originally intended to be used in a "quasi-private" or conversational manner, with privacy settings. Now it is a really effective broadcast.

Here's a Showhype link to the Facebook photos story.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Florida Beach Renourishment provides another test of private property rights

In August on this blog I covered a controversial eminent domain case on the Texas Gulf Coast, along with the right to speak and write freely about the case.

Here is a new test of property rights, in Florida. In the Panhandle, as in a community called Destin (not far from Pensacola) the state has been adding sand to beaches in front of waterfront homes (called “Beach Renournishment”), and then claiming that the additional “land” is public property. Local homeowners claim that this violates the Takings Clause, since it deprives them of waterfront property. The Florida Supreme Court (remember it from the 2000 election?) agrees with the State.

There is a blog by D. Benjamin Barros, a law professor at Widener, with an analytical article here. There’s another blog with the humorous title “Inverse Condemnation”, link here.

Robert Barnes has a front page story Nov. 24 in The Washington Post, “Landowners on Florida beaches fighting to be sand owners, too: Supreme Court to examine 'taking' of private property”, link here.

The case is Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

This doesn't sound quite as big brotherish as the Texas case.

Update: Dec. 4, 2009

The Washington Post has a major editorial "Shifting sands: Beachfront property, owners' rights and the Supreme Court", link here. The conclusion of the editorial is important enough to quote here directly: "But government entities should not have the right to unilaterally change the nature of private ownership -- and potentially the nature of the property itself -- without the consent of the owners or, alternatively, without paying "just compensation" to owners whose rights have been breached or whose property has been seized. The compensation should not depend on whether those rights were taken by eminent domain or as a result of a judicial decree."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blogger jailed for court contempt in Texas; courts see bloggers as "publishers"; more on media perils insurance

Bloggers generally don’t realize that courts tend to regard them as “publishers” as well as just engaging in conversation or social networking. That’s the recent spin over a few bizarre suits. Kate Murphy in Agence-France Presse reports that a real estate agent in Houston, TX was jailed for failing to turn in her computer to a court after she was sued for comments made about Anna Nicole Smith by the late model’s mother. The story is “Blogger jailed in defamation suit”, link here. Lyndal Harrington spent four nights in jail and claimed that her computer had been taken in a burglary. The news story repeats some of what she had apparently posted (I won’t). The story was posted in June 1, 2009, and reports that the defendant has been ordered again to produce the computer.

But a bizarre fact about this case is that she was sued for comments made on someone else’s blog. It’s true that comments are published speech that could carry libel liability, but it’s unusual for comments on blogs or forums to wind up in court. Section 230 would protect the blog host, but some people want to change that. But other bloggers were named in the suit. Howard K. Stern and Larry Birkhead, often covered in the media, are also named.

Defamation cases against bloggers, especially SLAPP cases, have tended to come from local sources like real estate developers, local politicians, or unusual cases involving “celebrities.” People have gotten into trouble for “complaining” about eminent domain or developer behavior, and for “gossip girl” talk. (I think the CWTV show ought to have a nice lawsuit in its plot concerning the mobile blog.) Typically the plaintiffs claim that the "false" postings have complicated their business or personal plans in some bizarre way. Truth is an absolute defense to libel (in the US, but not always in Britain -- ask Kitty Kelly).

Media Bloggers Association said in a posting May 21 that its blogger insurance coverage starts at $540 a year in some cases, is offered by AXIS Capital Holdings Ltd, and covers copyright infringement as well as defamation (some media risks policies don’t cover copyright cases). The link is here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Conservative Christians offer "Manhattan Declaration" urging defiance of the Law, honoring "Biblical" (as they see it) views of family and "life"

Conservative Christian, especially conservative Roman Catholic, leaders released (on Friday) a statement called the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience”, dated Oct. 20, 2009, a 4700 word, 30 page document, with PDF link here.

The media is reporting that the document encourages a measure of deliberate civil disobedience, not to comply with “secular” laws allowing abortion or recognizing same-sex marriage. For example, the Metro section of the Washington Post Saturday Nov. 21 has an article by Michelle Bourstein and Hamil R. Harris, “Christian leaders take issue with laws: defense of beliefs urged; same-sex marriage measure in spotlight:, web URL link here. The appearance of the article coincides with recent threats by the Catholic archdiocese in Washington to cut off services to the poor for the City if they have to honor same-sex marriage in their employment practices. Imagine how that looks! The last paragraph of the Declaration, on p 30, after talking about the “common good”, says belligerently, “ we will not comply with any edict ….” and goes on with its list to be above the Law.

The document itself is rather brutal reading. It gets in to making something extra of a marriage between man and woman and elevates experience of gender complementarity as a moral mandate; those who do not, even if by reason of some inborn treatment, are somehow viewed as tainted by sin in this view. The Post article says that the document regards “social ills” as having been “exacerbated by the election of President Obama, an abortion advocate as well as a general erosion of what he calls ‘marriage culture’ with the rise of divorce, greater acceptance of infidelity, and the uncoupling of marriage from childbearing.”

Actually, that sentence probably understates some former Vatican statements. In the past, the Church has presented openness to procreation and the risks and responsibilities it incurs as an essential duty of all those who don’t take vows of poverty; other conservative faiths (LDS, “evangelicals”, etc.) take similar positions (without trying to save a place for a celibate priesthood and convent order). That line of thought is what undergirds the opposition of the Church to homosexuality. In this view, participation in intergenerational responsibility (or “generativity” or “sustainability”) becomes an important moral principle, requiring the childless (even more than those with their own children) to maintain filial responsibility, blood loyalty, and be open to accepting the demands of others for emotional attachments. This used to be part of the “unwritten curriculum” of society, suppressed gradually starting with the liberation of the 1960s, but some forces are trying to make it come back. The concept gets expressed in the law sometimes, as with filial responsibility laws on the books in 28 states. This sort of thinking is concerned with unseen sacrifice, ill-gotten gain and motivational integrity, all of which are answered by insisting on "generativity."

The document does not talk about pornography, or cultural media “distractions” from the emotional connections of family, as did Rebecca Hagelin in her recent book (reviewed on the Books blog). But one can imagine an extension of the document: anyone should have accountability to others, especially for family, before being heard from. The problem is that in a few states that may already be the law, although few people seem to realize it.

The late civil rights attorney William Kunstler (as in a film that I saw yesterday and reviewed on the movies blog) said that tyrants operate by making their operations "legal". But it seems like some conservative Christians don't even care to go that far.

Friday, November 20, 2009

San Francisco cops seize laptops, DJ equipment at after hours parties without arresting people

Here’s a new one: cops in San Francisco (perhaps other cities) have been seizing laptops and audio equipment from after hours parties without making any arrests. A number of fund raisers and events have been raided, supposedly because the promoters did not have proper permits. Police would seize equipment not only of DJ’s but of other people attending the parties, and would hold the property for three months or more for “investigations.”

What's next, netbooks or Blackberries? Be careful about the after hours parties you go to?

The story is in the San Francisco Weekly, by Jennifer Maertz, Nov. 16, 2009, “S.F. cops may have gone too far in seizing DJ gear at underground parties”, link here. It sort of reminds me of the former Washington Blade (now DC Agenda) having to fight to get its Archives back.

Electronic Frontier Foundation headlines this story today.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Check out "" for another approach to the "opposing viewpoints" concept

Before, on the books blog, I’ve talked about the “Opposing Viewpoints” series of books and the concept. There is a website, called “ProCon”, with a similar concept, with this link. I heard about this site on the car radio, PBS classical music station WETA, while driving out of Tysons Corner today. ProCon is a 501(c)(3).

The site has a number of divisions, including Business, Health & Medicine, Law, Politics, and Sex & Gender. Each division has a number of “core questions” that are presented with a one-minute overview, and ten top pro-cons. One of the questions is “Is sexual orientation determined at birth?” There are separate subordinate questions, like “should federal law protect people from job discrimination based on their sexual orientation?” Each section has Projects, such as a same-sex marriage timeline.

There are many other issues functionally decomposed in this way, such as health care reform and Wall Street bailouts.

The site has a subsection for teachers and librarians, and a key aim is to stimulate critical thinking among high school and college students.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Washington Times subject to EEOC complaint from former editor: how independent are "private" newspapers?

Here’s a good one to followup on yesterday’s story on journalism. Richard Miniter, a former editor at The Washington Times, has filed an EEOC discrimination complaint when he refused to attend a religious ceremony and mass wedding conducted by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The expenses to the ceremony would have been paid, and it was not clear if the trip was part of his regular job duties.

The Washington Post Metro section as a story about this by Howard Kurtz, “Washington Times editor files EEOC complaint: “Disclosing his dismissal, Miniter says paper forced him to attend religious event” on Wednesday Nov. 18, link here.

The Washington Times, owned by Moon’s Unification Church, was founded in 1982 and is supposed to be editorially independent. But it probably does not have the bottom line pressure of many other newspapers, including the Washington Blade, as in yesterday’s story.

I recall the subway signs advertising Moon’s gatherings in New York City as early as 1974.

Here is the Washington Times link from March 2009, "Miniter Named to Lead Editorial Pages at Times", link here. Try it. The headline comes up and comments, but I don't see the story text.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What troubled newspapers and troubling bloggers have in common

Monday morning we learned that a number of gay newspapers had been shut down abruptly because the holding company that owned them was being liquidated. That leads me to ponder a “paradox” of sorts inherent in what we call “democratic capitalism”: people will use their own money and private money, even investor money, for political activism or to inform the public on matters of social importance, and people will feel that their message is more important than money for its own sake. But, ultimately, media companies have to make money to stay in business. If they are publicly traded, they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize earnings for shareholders. This is really an issue in the motion picture business, explaining why the “culture” of big budget major studio filmmaking is so different from that of independent film. Agents keep saying that ultimately all media business is “numbers driven.” That’s an interesting problem for public movie companies like Lionsgate, which want to get into progressive subject matter but depend on horror to feed the bottom line.

Yet, we see “business money” invested in media from both “liberal to progressive” causes (as with most gay publications) to conservative causes (newspapers like The Washington Times and book publishers like Regnery). Even the media companies have places on the political spectrum, with Fox supposedly notorious for its “conservatism.” Still, ultimately, all such businesses are vulnerable to the bean counters.

At the other end of the media spectrum are the independent bloggers or webmasters, who don’t try to make money at all, who run their sites as proprietorships so that they don’t have to report to anyone (except the IRS). Yet, in a legal sense their operations are often “commercial”, leading to legal questions explored on these blogs (COPA, implicit content, reputation, media perils, and the like).

It may be the implicit content issue that is the most nettlesome for “non-monetary” speech. That is, if the speech doesn’t seem to have a monetary motive or isn’t sponsored by an organization, readers or persons who find it might attribute existential motives to the speech. This could lead to some kinds of issues: enticement, hostile workplace, etc. It also is interpreted by some people as "disloyal", especially who see familial or social cohesion as a more important virtue than global "truth" (particularly from rogue speakers). Remember John Stossel's (ABC 20/20) broadcast on speech codes: "you just can't talk about that!"

This concern came to mind with a film I saw last weekend, called (ironically) “Untitled”, about output from certain musicians and artists whom the public resented as just trying to make them feel bad (I discussed this Sunday Nov. 15 on the movies blog). So the same observation could be made about some blogs, I suppose.

It’s true, that my blogs amount to an “inventory” of “problems” that could undermine our individualistic implementation of freedom. The “problems” are reported in the order that I encounter them, not in a logical sequence; they are reported as “news.” Yes, they harp on “personal responsibility” (so does South Park sometimes) but one real point is to encourage people to imagine constructive solutions rather than just take sides and turn the problems over to special interests and politicians. Yet, some people react as if merely talking about some troubling things (like the “personal responsibility” and “socialism” aspects of the health care debate) merely comes across as a way of belittling people who are less fortunate or expressing social disloyalty.

Actually, we can get beyond this turf-oriented reaction. If we did implement a Swiss-style approach to health care, for example, yes, some people, especially the young, would pay “more” for “other people’s problems”, but soon we would get used to the system, find that it works better and the whole “karma” thing would cease to seem controversial. There are grave threats to our way of life both in man-made areas (terrorism, EMP) and nature (not 2012, but asteroids, oceanic landslides as from Cumbre Vieja, and probably climate change), but if we “work smart” we really can solve these problems. For example, besides H1N1 vaccination issues, why are we so far behind the eight-ball on H5N1, which may be much more dangerous?

Nevertheless, many people, particularly in older generations, less affluent or religious conservative cultures, see life in terms of social structures and people-centered interactions rather than in ideas like “station in life” (money, fame, political or social influence, physical presence, etc). So they may feel they have less to lose if there is some massive disruption. Our modern “expressive” way of life is less relevant to people with a familial or group-centered social consciousness. But the challenge for “individualists” is an exercise in projective geometry, to map older styles of thinking about public morality into deeper understanding of ethics in an individualistic environment. We wind up with a system like “pay your dues” as well as “pay your bills.” One of the biggest problems is that many people benefit from the “hidden sacrifices” of others. It is much harder to get and keep what you want without infringing on others than “you” think. Think about how this mediates the debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” and then recall what it was like when we had a draft – and let a lot of people out with deferments.

Earlier generations understood this kind of conundrum (seeming to necessitate “double standards”), and that’s one reason why they spent so much effort in inculcating that “hidden curriculum”, social values that encourage complementarity and interdependence, and the willingness to mediate one’s own personal ambition by the needs of family and community; the capacity to do this was thought to be a foundation for stable martial sexuality. If we fail to solve some of these huge show-stopper issues, we could “slide back” to a world that places a lot more emphasis again on familial socialization.

Society, of course, became more individualistic, and people, in a society driven especially by modern communications technology (including the Net with all its social media and self-promotion tools) believe they are more on their own, often leaving some people behind (when the “family” would have taken care of things before). But it gets harder to maintain individualism as these challenges like sustainability, climate change, energy, and social demographics (like eldercare) force people back into accepting more social interdependence.

There were a lot of bad things in the older societies – economic exploitation, racism, and various inequalities hidden by “family values”. (We criticize these things, as well as primitive tribalism, in radical Islam today.) Yet, in a free society, people are never exactly equal. The “Freedom Principle” sounds almost like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of modern physics.

Indeed, I hope my postings, while hinting at solutions, do build an inventory of matters of “right and wrong.” Some people will say, we don’t need individual speech like this: we already have all our “rules” spilled out in the Koran, the Torah or the Bible. God has told us how to live. (Even God can’t rewrite mathematics, unless He does something like create an alternate universe without the Axiom of Choice.) But not really; I think that righteousness for its own sake turns out to be an underground way of making certain modes of sexuality work in some people; worship of “beauty” for its own sake can lead to worship of the “State” in such a way that real people get cut out, and freedom is then gone.

Nevertheless, in a “free society” there will always be uncertainty and some inequality; there will always be less than perfect justice; there will always be ways to get better. Calls for absolute justice will go down the path of revenge and eventual self-destruction. No wonder we need concepts like forgiveness, and the Christian notion of Grace. Even so, in a free society, there will always be competition, and some people will do better and come out ahead of others, in some real sense. So it is right to be concerned that those who come out ahead do so legitimately. Blogs can help us do this, just as did the Washington Blade (and as I hope it will again).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do (public school) teachers have a right to sell their own lesson plans?

Do teachers (especially as employees of public school systems) own their own intellectual property rights to lesson plans that they develop?

That question occurs in a front pages story in the New York Times Sunday November 15, by Winnie Hu, “Selling lesson plans online, teachers raise cash and questions”, link here.

Is a set of course notes, quizzes and homework assignments on Macbeth a “derivative work”?

More importantly, do teachers have a right to sell their own work when developed on an employer’s dime, or should the school district get the bounty? I suppose that when teachers do this, they are setting some sort of example for kids with respect to honoring copyright law and the employment relationship.

I can imagine that a geometry teacher could make a lesson plan based on the dimensions of major league baseball stadiums, and come up with something original enough to sell well. Or a physics teacher could do something like this by making up problems about the trajectory of a batted baseball or passed pigskin (and make fun of the Nationals and Redskins). Sports statistics make a great source of math test problems or lessons. I have my own math test here April 2009.

Creativity in making tests is less welcome today, as so many tests are standardized. But people are employed (especially as contractors) to write multiple choice test questions for the ETS, for state SOL’s, or even private certification companies like Brainbench.

Attribution link for picture of outfield of New York Mets new Citi Field in Queens NYC. It really doesn’t look like Ebbets Field to me. I’d love to see a Polo Grounds rebuilt.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

ACTA agreement being negotiated in Korea could undermine protections against downstream liability for ISP's; mandatory "3 strikes" in the offing?

The negotiations going on recently in Seoul, Korea for an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement have leaked information that very troubling, according to Kailtin Mara of Intellectual Property Watch. The title of the article is “ACTA Internet Chapter Leak Signals Far Reaching Copyright Policy,” with link here, dated Nov. 5, 2009.

Signatories would have to provide for third-party liability, the dreaded concept that could shut down “free entry” blogging and even social networking on the Web as we have come to use it. That is, it sounds like, if it remained out of control, it could eventually gut Section 230 protections in US Law (from the 1996 Telecommunications Act) or the indirect “protections” (however unconvincing to many people) of the DMCA takedown provision.

However, further leaked provisions suggest a “safe-harbor” for telecommunications companies or ISP’s that would include “would include having policies to remove incentives for unauthorised storage and transmission of information thought to be infringing, and having notice and takedown provisions in place so ISPs can be informed of and act on allegedly copyright violating content.” Is this the same as the DMCA takedown in US law? Not exactly. Commentators think this is inviting a “three strikes” law more like that which has been fiddled with in Europe (especially France).

The United States has a proposed ACTA agreement (link).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote that the leak confirms its “worst fears” and Gwen Hinze has an article “Leaked ACTA Internet Provisions: Three Strikes and a Global DMCA” (Nov 3). The article suggests that even the US is urging a global “three strikes” or “graduated response” policy which apparently is still pushed by major US media and music content companies. Apparently US providers would have much less flexibility in terminating alleged copyright infringers than is now the case. The article notes that Three Strikes has already been rejected by the European Parliament. The link for the EFF article is here.

Major content companies are still at war with consumers, it seems, or at war with upstart, low-cost challenges to their older business models, as outlined by William Paltry in his book “Moral Panics and Copyright Wars”, reviewed on the books blog Oct. 2. Check out his blog here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Major health insurer pressures employees to help lobby against health care reform; what are an employee's free speech rights?

The Washington Post contains a story by Dan Eggen about an employer’s pressuring its associates to support them on a political position by asking them to email or write local newspapers and legislators, apparently following a form-letter script. The title of the story is “Insurer enlists employees to fight health reform: Consumer group accuses United Health of intimidating workers”, link here, on p A11 in print.

Consumer Watchdog also has the story here and provides this link to the letter. In fairness, one must note that the UHC PDF letter document says that empployee participation is "voluntary" and employees may say what they like.

In the past, some of my employers have had “political action committees” which they have mentioned in employee manuals but none of them pressured “non management” employees (even highly paid individual contributors like computer programmers, which I was) to contribute.

I have expressed concern on my blogs that once someone is in management, they are less free to express their own personal opinions on political issues, be it health care reform or anything else. However, as I’ve noted here before, many employers have “blogging policies” which merely state that employees must, on personal blogs or sites or social networking profiles, label their personal opinions as their own. I’ve seen many people identify their employers on blogs in situations where it did not appear wise to do so.

In the 1990s, I worked for a company that, among other businesses, specialized in selling life insurance to military officers. When I became personally involved in the political debate over “gays in the military” (leading to “don’t ask don’t tell”) and decided to write a book, I transferred to a larger division of a company that acquired the company I was working for, to avoid what I perceived as “conflict of interest”.

People may say that United Heatlhcare's behavior is prohibited by the First Amendment, but the Bill of Rights applies to what the federal government (and sometimes, by the incorporation doctrine, states and local governments) may or may not do to citizens. It does not directly apply to private employers like United Healthcare, who could apply "employment at will" policies, although there could be other federal or state laws or Labor Department fair employment rules that regulate such employers with respect to employee speech. Possibly the practice could invoke rules involving lobbying and campaign finance (the FEC).

UHC was my insurer when I had retiree insurance from my last employer, and it is my AARP-supported Medicare Part B Supplemental now.

Employer management, as whole, as well known, however, for influenyial campaign contributions and organized lobbying.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Supreme Court judge holds school paper to "prior review" over his speech there; what about "Gossip Girl" bloggers?

The New York Times has an interesting conjecture about publication today, “Should school newspapers be subject to ‘prior review’”, in a column by Holly Epstein Oljavo. The term “prior review” means that sources (such as outside speakers) and sometimes school administrators approve coverage before going to press. The web URL link is here.

The question links to a front page story today, Nov. 11, in The New York Times, by Adam Liptak, “You Can Quote Me Next Week” in print, “From Justice Kennedy, A Lesson in Journalism”. Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke at Dalton, a private school in New York City, but Justice Kennedy insisted that his “office” approve any article discussing his talk before publication. This from a proponent of the First Amendment, including freedom of the press (and more freedoms than that).

Justice Kennedy seems to be overlooking the “Gossip Girl” effect (particularly in a private school): what’s to stop some “Blake Lively” type to cover it all in a blog and draw more attention than the school paper. Maybe school blogging policies. Then we get into what is enforceable when students write on their own time. (Don’t English teachers like to see students keep journals?)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Baltimore Harbor, I board another submarine (it isn't yellow)

Today (Nov. 10, 2009), as a bonus on a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, I boarded and took a brief self-guided tour of the World War II diesel-powered submarine, the USS Torsk.

In May 1993, while researching for the first book that I would write, I visited and boarded the USS Sunfish, a nuclear powered submarine built in 1963 (now decommissioned) at Norfolk Naval Base.

The Trosk seemed even more cramped that had the Sunfish. To go from one compartment to the next, one had to squeeze through like an octopus.

Of course, the cramped conditions on submarines are a “worst case scenario” for some of the debate over homosexuals in the military, with the “hot bunking” and lack of “privacy.” Nevertheless, midshipman Joseph Steffan had spent a summer cruise on a submarine, described in his 1992 book “Honor Bound”. Another apt observation is that very tall men (more numerous now than in the 1940s) could not fit on a submarine (or in some fighter jets – I don’t know what the height ranges are). And women were not allowed on submarines often until recently, until they were allowed on two subs according to an April 2008 New York Times story by Seymour Conch and James Boswell, link here.

Above, note the typewriter and teletype (1940s); no PC's yet.

Last picture: a Coast Guard cutter.

This picture: coelenterates (jellyfish), but not the notorious box jellyfish (cubozoa).

Monday, November 09, 2009

More cases of frivolous litigation against bloggers, other Internet users occur

Here’s an older story from May 21, 2009 from the Wall Street Journal about the increasing risk of litigation against bloggers, web url link here, by M.P. McQueen.

The story goes into litigation against Shellee Hale of Belevue, WA for postings about alleged hacker attacks on a company that makes software to track sales from “adult oriented” websites. And the problem here wasn’t COPA. The litigation appears to relate to comments made on a forum hosted by another site, not to a personal blog.

Some property casualty companies are offering coverage for blog postings, sometimes not including copyright or DMCA-related claims, however, for as little as $30 a year. But it’s not yet clear that they could always cover large volumes of postings or “controversial” material, a problem that the National Writers Union ran into in 2001 trying to offer media perils coverage.

The story also discusses Rogers Caddenhead, of the Drudge Retort, created in 1998.

The practical problem for bloggers may be defending against frivolous suits, which is one reason to press for federal anti-SLAPP legislation. Some companies aggressively scour the Internet for derogatory statements made against them or for what they perceive as copyright infringement or “piracy,” as the tools for such vigilance have grown more powerful. California has a fairly strong anti-SLAPP law but many states don’t. Tort reform is an issue with online liability just as it is with health insurance reform.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Is "too much knowledge" anti-faith? I say, see around those corners!

Today, Sunday afternoon, the Westover Market in Arlington VA held a “Be Brave and Shave: Heroes Against Cancer” benefit for the Children’s National Medical Center. Okay, these were head shaves, and I’m bald anyway. Frankly, because of some occurrences during my upbringing, I became very sensitive about my body as a boy, and rather unwilling to share even superficial (even non-living) “body parts” for charity. Some of these things are just too intimate. I play the “introvert advantage”, preferring to know what I’m doing before I jump in. If dropping by and snapping a picture seems voyeuristic, so be it. One can make the donation and not get shaved.

The media has had fun with this kind of thing, on reality shows. Let’s get beyond Allison Sweeney (“Samantha”) and “Biggest Loser” and recall Troy McClain who, in an early episode of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” let his legs get waxed for the sake of “The Team”. But for me, the vestiges of 1950s style shame is real. Once, when substitute teaching, I was ambushed by a request to don swimming trunks (at age 61) in front of the kids and man the deep end of the pool. I refused.

Okay, you say to me, "get off your high horse," give up those expressive, self-indulgent psychological defenses, and go back to real life. And I just photograph the experience in my mind, ready to write it up later, maybe in a movie screenplay.

That brings me to something else – related to introversion, perhaps. I like the accumulation of knowledge, sometimes gratuitously, sometimes, it seems, for its own sake. That theme kept coming in my high school education in the late 50s (graduating in 1961), as I explained in a posting on Sept. 14, 2007 here. The history teacher taught us to see the way issues like segregation could affect our “karma”, an math teachers (especially in plane geometry, as I remember) taught the value of sophistry and learning for its own sake. Today, education helps people learn to see around corners (as Dr. Phil often points out , although biological brain maturity is part of this). Suze Orman and her smackdowns on personal finance provides a good example: nobody needs to fall for the “because everyone else does it” trap and get into financial trouble with unsustainable financial behavior (like taking out unsound mortgages). Education, particularly math, helps people see the cumulative effect of savings and debt, both. In other areas, the same ideas apply. Computer literacy helps parents as well as teens recognize scams and predators. That sort of learning is a little bit like learning to drive a car: realizing that some kinds of mistakes can have long-lasting, grave consequences.

A lot of knowledge on the Internet has been “self-published” for free or for relatively little compensation by “amateurs”. A lot is written these days about whether this development undermines conventional “professional” newspaper and broadcast journalism. But the quality of the volumes of material on sources like Wikipedia and many personal sites keeps improving (with only modest additional constraints, such as those implemented recently by Wikipedia). And, as I’ve pointed out, a lot more could be done to give individuals the ability to “connect the dots”, enough to change the whole flavor of political debate and change, taking it away from lobbyists paid by special interests and giving it back to ordinary people. Blogging and social networking has, in some measure, become a new tool for direct democracy.

But a knowledge-based society presumes that individuals will keep up with “knowledge” in order to take care of themselves, and, depending on their past choices, their own families. A lot of this knowledge will make the well-informed better prepared for changes that come (as it did before; “introverts” were often better prepared to deal with a more entrepreneurial job market as it started to evolved in the late 1980s). Some of it is novel and subtle, such as the awareness of the problems concerning “online reputation” that have evolved during the era of social media. Some knowledge that gets out there, however, seems gratuitous. I know, I make postings about the (hypothetical) dangers of an asymmetric EMP attack or of a huge East Coast tsunami from the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Atlantic. There’s not much the average citizen can do about this sort of “duck and cover” scare talk (remember the “Atomic CafĂ©”?) Or is there? Talk about H5N1 (as opposed to H1N1) or even Ebola virus is scary, but with determination we can really get our politicians and medical industries geared up to deal with it before it disrupts our whole way of life. Or how about careful calculation of just how much mileage we can get out of clean energy initiatives to forestall adverse climate change (which not everyone sees as catastrophic).

Particularly since 9/11, followed by the global warming debate and financial crisis, we’ve come to understand that a lot of learning is really about “skills” – the Boy Scouts “be prepared” dictum, to be able to survive unpredictable externally imposed calamities. Of course, I say, we should be better prepared to prevent them (that goes for 9/11 and the neglect of the Bush administration). Here’s one of the critical points in the fulcrum of learning: realizing how a lot of what we have can depend on the unseen and involuntary sacrifices of others on the other side of our planet. A good comprehension of that by everyone (getting back to the high school history teacher) can help prevent these calamities in the first place.

Okay, we come town to another “Apprentice” dichotomy – “book smarts” vs. “street smarts”. As I found out with my own personal experience with the Vietnam era draft, military service, and deferments, a lot of people see social injustice as inherent with “too much education” (I remember a drill sergeant saying just that). People “in the masses” see “book learning” as a way to “get out of things.” The “class” resentment can run really deep. Pretty soon this runs into certain interpretations of Christianity (and similar beliefs in other faiths, including Islam). That is, the world is not about “you” (Rick Warren’s message), it’s about your whole community. Deep understanding of the outside world is not for us (it’s the Knowledge of Good and Evil); it keeps us away from Love and from needing salvation. And I come back and say, why can’t you have your cake and eat it too? How can it be wrong to have the wisdom to make sensible decisions and avoid foolish risks?

We can pose these conundrums in several ways. We can talk about “deep justice” – making sure everybody “does his part” and make that a fundamental moral issue as it was a few decades ago. Or we can, as Rick Warren would, pose it in terms of a community or family, not the individual. We can talk about changing the “rules of engagement”, and suddenly some people find out that it is their turn to become “second class citizens” – and face the religious idea that the political idea of “class” or “personal merit” is wrongheaded anyway (it is anti-Faith).

One of the biggest ways the rules change is that things are not just about making choices that avoid unwanted responsibility. If everyone is going to have to accept some intergenerational responsibility at a very personal level (because of sustainability problems), the way we think about “personal responsibility” and “family values” will turn on its head. But that won’t make the need for “the Knowledge of Good and Evil” to go away. If I did have my own kids, I’d want them to have that knowledge, so they could see around corners, all the way back to “passing Go”.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

EFF to have panel forum on the future of DVD's

Although I’m still on the East Coast and cannot attend this, I’m paying more attention to goings on elsewhere, as my future could well hit the road again at some point.

Here’s an important event: Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Future of DVD Panel and Happy Hour” on Monday November 9 in San Francisco at the Varnish Gallery. The link for the press release is here. There will be a lot of discussion of ripping, personal backups, and the difficulties in playing DVD’s sold in one region of the world in another. There is a lot in the practice of DVD manufacture that contradicts normal concepts of “fair use” and “first sale” doctrines in the law.

Yet, Wall Street and others say that companies like Netflix will probably move from a DVD rental even more to an Internet watching model, raising even more questions about copy protection, network neutrality, bandwidth use, as well as the technical quality of the entertainment items themselves.
Wikipedia attribution link for NASA picture of San Francisco peninsula.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Fort Hood tragedy may raise issues about military personnel's "personal" Internet postings

Of course, the news on the incident at Fort Hood, Texas today keeps rolling in, but MSNBC has an important story, just posted a little before 9 PM EST on Nov 5, to the effect that Major Nidal Malik Hasan had attracted the attention of authorities with Internet postings of an “existential” nature about six months ago. The MSNBC story has web link here and was featured for Dell/MSN users this evening (often the default IE site for new Dell computers). The story describes more graphically the disturbing content allegedly included in the posts. Apparently investigators are still trying confirm that Hasan actually wrote the postings.

The MSNBC story had used information on the “blogging” issue on an AP story here. Curiously, the AP story would not load into IE without disabling popup blocker. The story indicates that Hasan had expressed opposition to American deployments overseas, had performance evaluation issues, and was, most curiously of all, single with no children.

Blogging by military personnel from overseas, usually on military computers, has been controversial (even if a valuable source of battlefield journalism) and is prohibited or reviewed in some commands as a security matter. But stateside it is obviously done a lot (from personnel's own personal computers, usually). But blog content could come to the attention of military commanders. For example, it could be used as “credible evidence” to “enforce” the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy.

Here's a bit of a coincidence: the morning Washington Post today (Nov. 5) had covered a hard-hitting inside story about a Pentagon report about widespread concerns about unfitness of today's recruits (covered on my "Issues" blog earlier today; see Profile).

Curiously, MSNBC also greeted visitors tonight with a story about the rapid fall of Myspace (so often a favorite topic on Dr. Phil), to the point that its future is threatened; it has really lost ground to Facebook, Twitter, and other more upscale social media. The link for that story is here.

Wikipedia attribution link for p.d. picture of President George W. Bush visiting Fort Hood, not too far from Bush’s ranch. I was last in the general area in June 2005.

Later on Nov. 5

Here is an apparent link to Hasan's blog, this link on Scribd. Another blogger ("Director Blue" aka Doug Ross) offers an image of the post on his posting here, with some references to President Bush's "My Pet Goat" moment on 9/11. There will be a lot of discussion of Hasan's background in Islam. But I have personally met several people who, born in the Middle East, left Islam and came to the US.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Those Mommy Blogs -- they stay light on politics

WJLA, the local ABC affiliate in Washington (Arlington VA) talked about the way parents rapidly get computer literate because of their kids today, with 48% having learned texting from their kids. Actually, parents in their 30’s today were in high school when mainframe was in vogue and the switch to client-server and PC’s in the workplace was just starting, so none of that should be too surprising.

The report went on to discuss Mommy blogs. It seems that Heather Armstrong’s “” has some competition. The station mentioned “21st Century Housewife” which is on Blogger here. But there is another site called “21st Century Housewife” ("The Life and Times of the 21st Century Housewife")which has its own blog but seems to be completely different. Sounds like a treatment for a documentary indie film, maybe good for AFI Silverdocs! I say, go for it.

It seems that blogs about blogging (meta-blogs) can be challenging, as are blogs about political and social thought. Many of us men are not very domesticated.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Does everyone need a "relationship" before speaking out?

One of the key concepts that I carried over from my involvement with the Rosenfels community (formerly the Ninth Street Center when I got to know it in the 1970s) was that of “balanced” and “unbalanced” personalities.

The latter, of which I am an example, tend to value their independence and “personal autonomy” (or “individual sovereignty”) and insist on being effective in following their own goals, as chosen specifically by them. In some cases, they like the recognition that comes from individual accomplishment, such as “getting published” or reaching some milestone in a career, whether that activity comes from public performance (acting, giving concerts) or from scientific research on novel problems (say, the ultimate problems of basic physics, for example). Personal recognition and self-driven accomplishment can become more important than having “a relationship” (even than getting married and/or having children). The freedom to work and express oneself while alone and without supervision becomes important. Some people (Phillip Longman, as in earlier postings) would see this as excessive self-absorption. Others see such internal focus in some people in a culture as essential to discovery and progress.

One particular problem occurs when “unattached” people express themselves: others are likely to become suspicious of their motives and purposes. Others may believe that the singletons want to step on their toes with “truth”, or may become untrustworthy in the future when circumstances change (as in the posting Sunday). We see this particularly with the Internet today. Indeed, most of the problems involving “online reputation” (especially the sundering of reputations of others) come from younger people who have not yet experienced marriage or making their own commitments to others. There is a feeling that someone who is clearly accountable to others (in some emotionally real sense) is more trustworthy. Jealousy, while usually seen as a pejorative, might be seen as a good thing in some people, evidence that one is committed to others somehow, and not just a dilettante. Family responsibility transcends making careful choices and gets (especially now with eldercare) gets into areas Dr. Phil hasn’t covered yet.

All of this can become legally significant, when we consider the “implicit content” problem, that is likely only to increase. Likewise, we know, as from experience in areas like auto insurance, that people with commitments are sometimes better risks. All of this was familiar “moral territory” in the past, most notably expressed in the 1970s and 1980s by some conservative authors, especially George Gilder (“Sexual Suicide” and “Men and Marriage”).

Of course, we all know that there are plenty of ways people do very bad things when they do have responsibilities to protect families. Look at war, racism, financial corruption, and particular forms of greed, and “conventional” jealousy . These are all older, pre-Internet sins, still played out in the soap operas.

All of this puts me on a hot seat, at least in these current strange days.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Facebook offers "Wisk" ap for "reputation cleansing" for "friends"

There is a new Facebook application, “Wisk-It” (sounds like a detergent, doesn’t it) that will allow “friends” to communicate “reputation cleansing” photo deletion requests. Your “friend” (that doesn’t mean the neighborhood cat trying to get let in to mew in front of your refrigerator), when she has Wisk, gets the delete requests from you the next time she logs on to her account.

It sounds as though a lot of the photos people take at parties really are wild. I see flashes flying all the time at discos, but I don’t think shirtlessness (for adult gay men, especially when confronted by performers at the Town DC) really creates a “reputation” problem. The underage drinking and all that, it seems that the job counselors really make a lot of it. (How can you tell that a drink held in a photo by a 20 year old on a youth night has alcohol, anyway? There’s imitation alcohol-less beer now, you know. I suppose that when Shia La Beouf first hosted SNL, they couldn’t serve alcohol at the after-show party. Later there would be plenty of time for those “grown up things to do.”)

The New York Times story by Stephanie Clifford is “An Application to Help Scrub Those Regrettable Photos from Facebook,” link here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Surviving Halloween for All Saints' Day: Ponder the new "don't ask don't tell" society

Today, as I took in the hymn “For all the Saints” by Ralph Vaughn Williams, the “All Saints Day” after some people on Washington’s 17th Street didn’t quite survive Halloween, I remembered a vague argument made last week in the health care debate, about mandatory insurance – to the effect that people are likely to comply if they believe that doing so will follow a “social norm” – even if doing so doesn’t compute according to economic self interest.

But the “social norms” argument somewhat overlooks the role of individualism and the kind of thinking that has become the norm for our culture for the past few decades. True, there are new social norms, especially “speech codes” about what you can’t say – and as John Stossel showed last spring (“You can’t talk about that”), even these get very hard to pin down.

Back in the 50s, the family unit, as well as larger encapsulations of church and country, did provide people with mindset – of norms about where the right place for your head to be was. You learned to perform as an individual, as in school or on the athletic field, but you learned to be part of the group in order to continue on your family and your culture – the so called “hidden curriculum” that many of us did not get (partly because it invokes a gratuitous emotional space, rather familiar in soap operas). Marriage (and parenting within marriage) was put on a pedestal (enforced by familiar codes of Vatican sexual morality letting marriage monopolize sexuality) so that married couples had enough incentive to remain stable and active (and to get formed in the first place). It's important to realize that, in this view, "family values" works because of a common belief that everyone will honor the authority of the family, that everyone is a stakeholder in family regardless of individualized "choices".

But even as early as the late 50s, the time of both Sputnik and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, the idea of the autonomy of the individual began to become more important. A great irony of modern democratic civilization is that a family-centered system was probably a necessary prerequisite for modern individualism to develop. (Yup, I’ve seen plenty of columnists in The Washington Times say things like this!)

There really is quite a clash of world views here, that reaches deeply into personal levels. Some people feel that true “freedom” only is possible when the family becomes an intermediary for people to learn compassion and caring; others feel that freedom requires absolute fidelity to the law of karma and “personal responsibility” -- and acceptance of the consequences of the application of Logic. Of course, you can "define" personal responsibility in terms of ability to provide for others beside the self (and including intergenerational responsibility within the family, whether "chosen" by procreation or not). “Love” and “Law” overlap but sometimes can contradict each other.

The debate over homosexuals in the military in 1993 erupted as a microcosm of this dichotomy. “An Army of One” is, after all, the ultimate oxymoron. Now the same tension lives in society as a whole with the way we use the Internet. Is it for socialization, or is it for self-promotion and fame? Well, it’s both and there’s a rub. You can get famous by stepping on toes and avoiding the social mess of others – and they will eventually say the only point of your speech is to incite or entice them unless you take on the same responsibilities that they do. We’re now only beginning to grasp the nature of this kind of problem with social media. Ponder again, what a “don’t ask don’t tell” society really comprises. Bill Clinton, without quite understanding what he was doing, did open Pandora’s Box in 1993, but it would blow itself open anyway soon.