Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"The Proles" (inspired by Army Basic in 1968) preceded "The Manifesto"

I’ve been preparing a “DADT III” manuscript (first draft – see Books blog Oct. 1, 2011), for official publication as an e-Book and print this summer, and in the course of doing so, I’ve reviewed my old manuscript for the novel “The Proles” that I sketched when I was in the Army (by hand in the barracks, 1969) and had typed up by 1972. 
The novel has a detailed autobiographical account of my time in Basic Combat Training in early 1968. I streamlined the account and smoothed out the coarse language in my 1997 book,  but I now think that the original chapter (about 48 double-spaced pages), with all its graphic, self-effacing detail and crude language common at that time in that environment, would be quite telling now.
The chapter presents me as a sheltered, spoiled,. “over-educated” yuppie, who doesn’t carry his weight and who could be perceived as a parasite on those who do.  In today’s world, such a self-assessment sounds like Maoism.  If everyone is brought equally low, no one can mooch on anyone else.  Isn’t that what authoritarianism exploits?
But, of course, I wonder how many of my problems, of being “physically non-competitive” as a male, were the result of an inborn biological problem (genetic or epigenetic, perhaps neurological [mild autism or Asperger's]or maybe circulatory), and how much of it was moral – a physically lazy disposition?  Actually, I didn’t lack energy – I was underweight, not fat. And, in Basic Training, I did get somewhat better after being recycled through Special Training Company for about four extra weeks, being able to pass the PCPT with reasonable scores after about eight weeks in the Army.  
A key point is that I was not aware of my underdevelopment until others forced me to see it.  And it seemed to have to do more with what others wanted to demand from me, not from what I really needed to take care of myself, excel in school, earn a living.  After all, young men are required to offer themselves to defend the country, right?
When I subbed, I noticed that some students in special education probably perceived things this way.  They didn’t know why the outside world needed to demand so much from them.

In the novel, there is a preceding chapter where I finish graduate school – stumbling on my orals on an important theorem (Liouville’s).  In Basic, an officer trips me with a question on whether drawing two points on a line always results in a triangle.  Maybe I had been mediocre as a grad student.  I also gave a final to my “remedial” (or slow-track) freshman Algebra test and graded the finals on the bus on the way to Denver to spend semester break with a grad student friend before entering the Army.  I was a kind of “visiting team”, batting first, and then having to defend my right to survive in the Army.  Yet I prevailed.  I would be sheltered away in a non-combatant MOS (“Mathematician”) and let others (bigger and stronger) do the fighting.
The moral implications of all this are still quite troubling to me, even if younger generations of upper middle class kids have barely seen this.  Churches try – with exercises like 30-hour fasts.

The novel itself may seem nihilistic, although no more so that a Lars Van Trier film (like “Melancholia”, which after all brings the end of the world). In the book, a character based on me (named John Maurcek), a natural hero-worshipper, comes into contact with some young men who seem to be trying to bring about a “Second Coming”, as evidenced by a sequence of violent events and local signs.  They seem to have invented a battlefield weapon that can make an enemy soldier (or anyone) dematerialize, and be digitally encoded.  The person can be brought back to life multiple times, like incarnations, in which he will not recall other resurrections.   (All of this is a bit of a stretch of physics, but even during my late 60s Arrmy service,  I heard mention of scary weapons like flux guns, now the nightmare of conservative "doomsday preppers").  After Army service, Bill gets led on a treasure hunt, and awakens to find himself living in a world of post-nuclear apocalypse. People try to get life going again in little communities, but all the “undeserving” will get their specialized comeuppance, sometimes dispatched with a machete.  I can see that, in my late twenties, I was capable of holding some people in particularly low regard.   Old “Army buddies” (like ‘Rado Suhl” -- "collect on delivery") at Fort Eustis will remember me (“Chicken Man”) for this. 
I think I’ll include this original chapter about Basic Training in my DADT III book as an “appendix” (perhaps ruptured).  

By the way, one of the first songs I ever heard in a gay bar (Julisus's, in NYC) was "Bugler Boy", from WWII, with the words "You're in the Army now."

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Manifesto", revisited

One moment that comes to mind crystal clear is my boarding a taxi on Broadway, suitcase in hand, around 6 PM on January 5, 1979, saying goodbye to my apartment in the Cast Iron Building and quickly flying away to a new life in Dallas, where I would spend over nine very interesting years. 
I did not have a compelling reason to leave my job.  True, the new one offered slightly more pay in a new city with lower taxes and living costs, and probably an opportunity for “prosperity”.  But the driving force was personal.  In 1978, as eventful as it had been, I had been given reason to contemplate whether I could stay in a relationship if something “happened” to the other person to affect his “attractiveness”.  Details don’t matter right here.  But some irony does.  The circumstances had given me a forewarning of what might happen to the community a few years later.
In Dallas, the epidemic (HIV-AIDS)  arrived full force maybe about two years after it stormed through New York.  That was enough time for me to adjust my “behavior” and probably save my own life.  As far as I know, I never got infected.  The “gay community” in Texas would have to survive a ferocious political threat from the religious right, which tried to ban gays from almost all occupations.  In retrospect, it seemed surprising to me that ten years later we really could focus on the “right” to serve in the military.  I had come from much more menacing lands.
I am going to review, in this “manifesto” posting, what I am getting at with these blogs, books, and screenplays.  But I want to backtrack to what I “accomplished” with my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997, and then show how things have evolved and flipped since then.
Bill Clinton’s campaign promise (in 1992) to lift the ban on gays in the military would have surprised me, were it not for the stories of people like Keith Meinhold and Joseph Steffan that had surfaced the summer before his election.  And the counter arguments in 1993, stressing “privacy” and then “unit cohesion”, seemed to have an ironic parallel with my own civilian expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 (I would get drafted anyway in 1968).  But what struck me the most, given my own coming of age, was the way the military encapsulated so many of the values that seemed to trap and threaten those of us who were “different”, like me, and how it had, until the collapse of the Vietnam war, been presumed that young men owed their country the capacity to defend it physically, risking not only life but being maimed or disfigured, and still needing to depend on the love (even sexual) of others. Likewise similar activity is often of young men (today more often of women, too, than before) in various civilian counterparts, such as police and volunteer fire departments.  The public used to believe that the “possibility” of homosexuality would undermine the ability of men to bond to defend women and children in a family, tribe, community, or country.  We all know from the history of “don’t ask don’t tell” that this turned out to be a bit of a canard.  But it was a perception a half century ago, when I was a young man.  And the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was law for seventeen contentious years.
My 1997 book focused on libertarian approaches to individual rights, with the idea that the legal code and, largely speaking, the community moral code ought to focus on (Southpark-like) “personal responsibility” rather than collective purposes and trying to right aggregate differential outcomes (and “victimization”).  But I already had a sense of why “private choices” do matter to the larger community.  This notion seemed to apply way beyond to area of gay rights to most people who were in any significant way “different” (maybe to a lot more heterosexuals than homosexuals). 
In the ensuing years, three major things changed.  One was that the separation of “private life” from “public” tended to melt away in the age of the Internet and social media.  Personal rights tended to focus more on public self-expression (and sometimes self-promotion) than on “private lives”.  Double lives became untenable.  More recently, energy level has risen in the right to self-defense, too. 
Another (second) way was that my perception of “common good” became less a matter just of of economic fairness (seen as the way issues ranging from gay marriage to family leave are debated) and “equality” as to a more personal concern about the way we form and keep relationships.  People seemed to have widely varying stakes in responsibility for others, and this created a lot of intractable social tension.  This understanding grew with me during my long spell of eldercare for my mother, as well as work as a substitute teacher.
But the “third thing,” building on the first two, has to do with sustainability of our pluralistic, free, “global” way of life.  We all know the range of concerns:  environmental (climate change, even space weather), security (terrorism, particularly asymmetric and unconventional), and demographics (longer life spams and lower birth rates).   There are some things that have to happen “collectively” or “in significant volume” for our way of life to continue.  One of the most striking new moral expectations is “generativity” – the idea that every individual (even those without their own children) should have a real personal stake – skin in the game – in the people who will follow them.  Add to this is the idea that we want to value all human life, at a time when technology challenges us to make the personal commitments  (like to prolonging the lives of parents) that doing so would take, without inviting more government.  That is a curious irony.
That brings me my “main course” (at least the meat course, after the fish). I want to focus on the question as to how those of us who are “different” and perhaps less socially connected to others should be expected to behave.  The question matters in almost any society or political culture. It is equivalent to a person’s own moral character.
I’m trying to stay away ideology for its own sake, whether religious (scriptural) or political.  But it’s true, many religions and many authoritarian political systems seem to get a lot of mileage out of containing those who are “different” and proposing that they can bring danger to everyone.  That plays out in different ways.  In small tribal societies, sometimes you really have to count on everyone when there is an enemy or threat.  In a large pluralistic society, asymmetry (the Internet and low barriers to entry) creates its own tensions and risks.  And we’ve all seem that homophobia seems to work this way.
Why isn’t this kind of thinking seen as self-effacing?  I think there is a natural tendency for people to be willing to make sacrifices for others when they think everyone else will.  But moreover, I think there is a question of “meaning”.  People sometimes find the emotional commitments they make (especially in the areas of marriage and family) meaningful because they think there are certain “natural” ways that things are “supposed to be”; if the self-discipline required is “meaningful” then it can generate long-term reward and pleasure.
Indeed, I am a bit of an aesthetic “fundamentalist”.  I like people and things that look or sound “good” for their own sake.  That is, I tend to like what I perceive as natural “virtue” for its own sake.  I detect in myself a dislike of seeing some aspects of that virtue challenged too publicly.  Think, after all, about why societies usually have laws against too much public nudity.  They want to protect the “meaning” for private intimate settings.
Having migrated to libertarianism in the 1990s, I don’t like to see the government regulate “private choices”.   But it makes sense to talk about some behavioral choices as ethical matters when they are likely to compromise the ability of others to make choices needed for the “common good”. 
“Not all art is autobiographical”, but when I look at the narrative in my first two books, and imagine continuing it to the present (as in film or video), I see a lot of things that people could expect of me.  But what does it add up to?
All  this takes me back to those main areas of concern that are particularly striking to me.
Let’s return to the narrative stream with which I started.  Although there was no “marriage” broken up in the events I mentioned – that wasn’t expected much in the gay community in the 1970s – the implication is clear.  Couples have to remain interested in one another if something happens to one of them.  (That’s what a marriage vow says.)  That would apply to gay marriage now.  But it has always applied to traditional marriage.  Wives have to deal with husbands maimed in wars overseas (or the reverse).  But all kinds of bad things can happen here, too, ranging from the actions of others (negligence or crime) to, of course, the more familiar medical scenarios – which are more testing now because people can survive things and live longer if they have someone to love them, than they could in past generations.  The cohesion and sustainability of society could depend in part on this human resource.
That can provide one reason why people (roommates, therapists, NIH, etc.) were so bemused by first my social indifference and then my fantasy material (based on “virtue”, as noted above) back in the early 1960s.  At least, it could prove distracting to the values (“meaning”) for others in my environment if public and persistent enough, leading to a sense of unmet sacrifice. Call it a minor amount of subversiveness. 
This observation links over to a second major area of concern: that is, how we respond to adversity, most of all when imposed on us by those who decide we are their enemies.  Adversity comes from many places, especially as we live longer.  But particularly glaring is the blatant, brazen nature of much of the violence today against ordinary middle class people.  Although the recent terror attack in Boston and several shooting rampages get the most attention (from politicians, especially), the practical concern seems to be the street violence, related to gangs, domestic situations, drugs, and poverty, menacing the safety of almost everyone with potentially existential threats, often displaying a "feudal" culture based on social combat or bullying.  Sometimes this seems to be not just crime as we used to think about it, but a kind of warfare, almost as Marx could have described it.  Perpetrators often live outside the system if finance and “law and order” as we usually perceive it, because they (so they feel) were failed by it.  Right and wrong don’t come just with individual actions, but from hierarchal relationships (the gang model – but is also applies to warlords and feudalism).  In this mindset (or “revolution”, "expropriation", or “purification”, as I’ve heard some "radical" people say), a victim is a deserving “casualty” because he or she is the “enemy” (even if a child).  In a sense, such a system of values goes along with extreme tribalism, often under religious control. (see my note on "non-combatants" at the end.)

I saw this kind of thinking when I “spied” on the Far Left in 1972, in the months before I “came out” a second time.  The degree of indignation against salaried middle class professional people (like me) as “parasites” on “working people” was shocking at the time.  But I really had found the same attitude in Army Basic Training back in 1968, when we had a system “corrupted” by student deferments that left the less academically gifted as potential “cannon fodder” for Vietnam. I’ve had to fight this off verbally in person earlier in my life.
I am nearing 70 years old and don’t make any predictions, but the possibility that I could encounter violence myself is probably greater than it used to be, for any time since the 1960s.  I would find it difficult to accept “dependency” on others if something bad happened like this, and hope that if it did, I would be gone quickly.  I would have been “taken”.  If some calamity (like hostile EMP) suddenly destroys our way of life (something that "Doomsday Preppers" seem to want, throwing people onto depending onto their own guns), the world would have no further use for someone like me (partly because of the recalcitrance toward intimacy as I've already noted).   In a sense, in my own mind, there is no such thing as a “victim”, and I am very uncomfortable with the way the media sprays and personalizes the “word”.  There is only reality, justice, forgiveness, and Grace.  Without some of the last two of these, one winds up paying for the sins of others as part of his karma (at least, for depending on others in ways he did not face up to).  I could escape this possibility only by “changing” and giving of myself in a personal manner that would be very painful.   As a policy matter, I do feel that Congress should take care of the medical and rehabilitation expenses of anyone injured in a foreign-inspired attack – because the people affected were “conscripted” into combat. But as a personal matter, I have a hard time addressing the needs of any particular person affected (and not previously in my orbit) unless I am somehow prepared for it.
The “adversity” issue of course embraces many possible threats, many (but not all) of them natural, a few of them potentially catastrophic for our way of life.  They could include not only nuclear weapons but also electromagnetic pulse devices.  Fortunately, these seem to be much more difficult to deploy than some right-wing literature suggests.  But the significance of them is obvious.  Someone like me is of no use in the world that is left.  I have no generativity.  And I have no ability to find normal layered social interactions work. Social conservatives can claim that a pluralistic society that has lost most of its ability to maintain social structures is a particularly inviting target for enemies.  But our Society in America has much more cohesion than many would think.  Despite the supposed decline of “social capital” many families are strong and volunteerism is common.

So, if I (like the Star Trek Spock character) don't like to be asked to "feel" for others caught by adversity, I have to admit that it can happen to me, either naturally or because of hostility, either randomly or in targeted fashion.
The third major area that is striking to me is the way we look at risk and the “morality” of risk taking has changed.  In my own experience, this may well start with my own experience with the military draft in the Vietnam era.  I have a detailed manuscript on it (part of an unpublished novel called “The Proles” that I started in the Army).  My account is quite graphic, and it is apparent that despite my rarified “book smarts”, I couldn’t deal with the physical reality of a dangerous world around me.  Is this disability (a kind of autism, or perhaps neurological in some other way), aloofness, or just plain cowardice? In this era, it was seen just in moral terms; if someone like me didn’t do my part, the risk passed on to others. 
We see this carry on in other areas.  For example, after the West, Texas explosion recently, townspeople noted that most smaller towns rely on volunteer fire departments. 
The “risk” and “burden” concept carries over into “family values” and this point was apparent in my 1997 book.  I spent a lot of space on the idea that having a children greatly reduces discretionary income to spend on one’s own expressiveness, and a willingness to pass on one’s mojo to progeny.  Do people “sacrifice” when they have families?  That seems to depend on how you perceive “desire”.  But it is apparent that in higher income families, fewer people (both men and women) want kids, and this certainly has demographic and sustainability consequences.   Likewise, as more families depend on two incomes, one-breadwinner families get “priced out”, and a whole set of cultural incentives for “socializing” men die out.
The opportunities of the Internet also complicate the tasks of families.  The practical reality is that social media has forced many people to live “publicly” whether they want to or not. While for someone like me, the Web has provided a “second life” after retirement, that facilitation means that kids, at least of less tech-savvy or less educated parents, are put at various kinds of risk.  This loops back to the basic question about the willingness to channel one’s life for the benefit of others and take risks for future generations.
I gradually developed a catch-phrase for this set of issues, which I call “pay your dues”. 
What would really change (and this becomes the “Fourth Thing”)  in my perception of “fairness” is how personal it can get.  Both the eldercare experience with my mother and my substitute teaching job faced me with unwanted invitations to become more involved in tender mercies with others.  This is a development that I didn’t see coming.
But it makes a certain sense.  I had put myself out as a public pundit, not requiring that I prove that my self-expression could actually provide for myself, let alone other people.  That sort of thinking had gotten in the way of a music career earlier in my life – it wasn’t an easy thing for a young man to go into, given the “Cold War”.  But now I had put myself out there, and suddenly people would challenge me to prove I could take care of others, that I could grow my own skin to put in the game (at the risk of losing it).  Sometimes these would come un unsolicited calls for interviews for sales (even “fundraising” or huckster) jobs of a personal nature that were totally alien to me.  Sometimes they came from pressure from service providers to try harder to “sell” and monetize what I had when I didn’t need to yet or when it didn’t make sense – because others with “real families” needed to make profits off me from commissions.
Eldercare, which has some aspects of being legally driven (filial responsibility laws) certainly compounds the issue of “family responsibility”.  During the “Me Generation” (since the 1970s), we’ve gotten used to the perception that “family” is optional – you need to make it on your own first, anyway. Don’t have kids too early, or have them at all, if you want to be an “influential” or “powerful” individual.  But that obviously generates a “flip side” when you have to take care of family anyway, raising questions about what marriage is for after all. 
I could say that this extra intimacy would be welcome only if I had “generated” my own family – married and had kids.  Them I would have my own domain, my own stake.  But that presents the classic “chicken and egg” question. Isn’t there a problem that I didn’t find any “meaning” in extending myself to someone who really “needs” me – not in the sense of surplus, but in the sense of making it at all?  I would have thought that extending myself to someone “like that” had no “meaning”. 

I indeed stayed socially isolated (some call it “schizoid”, some call it Asperger’s), created my own world, and had some partial success publicizing it.  I did not become socially engaged because I could not compete socially or physically.  I found conventional paths of socialization humiliating. So I went my own way and, it turned out, became productive as an individual contributor.  But I can see how it could have gone wrong, and in many ways I was “lucky” or “fortunate”. During most of my adult years, the social and political culture gradually accepted the primacy of “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy”, sometimes to the point of hyper-individualism, which I don’t think is wise to take for granted. 
Had I been more “competitive” I do believe I would have married and had children.  But there’s a good question as to whether I could have remained committed in marriage for life.  So is it better that I didn’t? It’s a question that has a two-sided answer.
I do have a sense of what should have been expected (and often definitely was) of “someone like me”.  Part of the moral expectation has to do with readiness to “step up” in some situations where courage (physical, emotional, or both) is required.  These situations may not occur frequently (maybe they are years apart) but when they occur you know it, even if you can’t define it in advance.  To not do so is what we used to mean by “cowardice” (a word we don’t use today the way we did when I was drafted).  If you don’t, there are consequences.  Some things follow on to this.  One is a certain openness to serving the needs of others in a succession of cohorts – starting with family, and moving out – even if it means some sacrifice of one’s own intended purposes.  It’s hard to say when this kicks in, but you know it when you see it.  There is a certain belief (especially among social conservatives) that the inclination to date, marry, and raise another generation (in one lifelong relationship, carried out with some passion based on complementarity) naturally follows this kind of socialization. (Having children, or else at least being ready to help raise other people's children in a pinch, is a prerequisite for a place at the table, in this line of moral thinking.)  Science may not support such a belief. Instead, it may support a more generalized idea of polarity, and character specialization – but these require some surplus and genuine opportunity beyond meeting adaptive needs, for self or others.  There’s another irony: you can’t enforce a system like this on others (me), without becoming a hypocrite.  But you can regulate “the privilege of being listened to”.
Related posts: On International Issues blog  (discussion of non-combatants) and  GLBT Issues blog (both April 26, 2013).  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Internet sales tax meets the expected "libertarian" resistance

Is the proposed Internet sales tax, held up in the Senate but likely to pass very soon, unconstitutional?  Is it bad policy?
A typical recent story is on Yahoo!, here.  The bill would allow all states to collect sales taxes from their own residents on online purchases.
Fox has a similar story here

Senators from states that do not have sales taxes (like New Hampshire, Delaware) resist the idea of being required to collect sales taxes for those that do.  It’s seen as a violation of “states’ rights”.  But it may be more like “Full Faith and Credit”, an issue we’ve seen recently in debates of gay marriage and DOMA.
Right now, states can collect sales taxes only from companies that have a physical presence in the state, which gives many states an incentive not to employ people in a particular state.  The current policy might not be good for employment.

Many states, including Virginia, stipulate that taxpayers report online purchases with uncollected taxes, but almost no one does. 

An Internet sales tax might help “bricks and mortars” stores, especially book and music stores, retain more market share of retail business. 

Would bitcoin transactions (on mobile devices) be subject to the tax?
Smaller companies that don’t outsource their sales operations (as to Amazon) could have great difficulty complying.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Can government "compel speech" for political purposes as a condition of funding? Take it personally

Can the federal government require an organization (or a person) espouse a particular position on an issue before receiving funds?  I hope not.
But, according to an editorial in the New York Times on Tuesday, April 23, 2013, that seems to be the case. The piece, on p. A20, is titled “Free Speech and the Anti-Prostitution Pledge: The government cannot compel organizations to espouse its views in exchange for financing”, link here

 At issue is the 2003 “United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDSS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act. The act requires recipients of aid to have a “policy explicitly opposing prostitution”.

The Second Circuit had ruled in 2011 that the provision requiring proactive advocacy actually compels or coerces speech.  At the same time, the Supreme Court has argued that federal fund recipients can be prevented from making certain arguments, as with abortion.

The case is “Agency for International Development et al” v. “Alliance for Open Society International”, with oral argument transcript from April 22 here
On a personal level, it seems like pressure to join someone else’s cause and speak for them is often rather high, and it is objectionable.  


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Search engines: how to they handle misspellings?

What happens with misspelled words or typos on websites?  My own experience is that usually they don’t get indexed, but sometimes they do. With a large volume of blogs, some unnoticed typos seem inevitable.  Sometimes they creep into posting titles.  When caught, the title is corrected, but the posting name is stored in a search engine with an incorrect spelling, which could make some visitors suspicions.  But this is just a “typing” and timing problem.
I found an old article by Christopher Weng on the spelling issue and how to address it.  Don’t depend on meta-tags (search engines today don’t pay much attention to them, I don’t even think they did as long ago as the year 2000), and don’t hide with color schemes (or CSS coding), which search engines may consider deceptive.  Here’s the (wesbite url) link.  
 Here’s a newer article from 2009 on “Nine by Blue”, link.
Search engines do massage misspellings by users even when they don’t do the same for websites.
Webmasters may sometimes misspell names out of a bit of dyslexia, particularly with hard-to-pronounce words, or foreign names (with unusual use of letters not common in English or closely related languages like French, Spanish, or German). The eye tends to correct misspellings when proofing them and not catching them (note how hard the correct acronym for “CISPA” is to pronounce).  But too many misspellings  (or variations of one word) may make a search engine suspicious of spam intentions.  Here’s a little advice from “Search Engine Genie” (link)

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Libertarian" Koch Brothers move into journalism (and blogging next?)

It’s with some interest that I noticed a New York Times story Sunday, by Amy Chozick, “Conservative Koch Brothers Turning Focus to Newspapers,” link here

Koch is looking at the Tribune company, with papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, and Fort Lauderdale.

This story caught my own roving  or hypnotic eye because I’ve covered a couple of documentary films about Koch companies (in energy) on my Movies blog (March 8, 2013, September 20 and 26, 2012).  There is certainly a lot of reporting out there that the company manipulates the system for its own business.

Yet, for much of my “writing” career I’ve preferred “laissez-faire” ideas myself.  My questions are: Can we sustain our way of life, and can we take care of everyone the way a society that values human life should?  That puts a lot of personal obligation on every one of us.  

Update: April 23

Career Cast published the worst and best jobs in the world, and ranked newspaper reporter as the worst!, link here. It's true, as documented in the book "Trading Secrets" by R. Foster Winans (1989), that newspaper reporters work under tremendous time and accuracy pressures, with a conventional job market that his shrunk.  I remember that journalism used to be a big undergrad major (like at the University of Missouri).  Who wouldn't be envious, though, of Anderson Cooper's job?  He paid his dues.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

CISPA passes House; activists propose Internet blackout for April 22

The group Anonymous has called for an “Internet” blackout on Monday April 22,  since the House of Representatives passed  (248-268)  a rewritten CISPA (The Cyber-Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, HR 3523 in 2012, reintroduced as HR 624 in 2013, the 113th Congress, here) Thursday, April 18, 2013. (The “S” is before the “P”, making it harder to pronounce.)
The Huffington Post has a story, by Alexis Kleinman, about the proposed blackout here.  It’s not clear that very many major websites will join the blackout.  (Yes, I love the line in ABC’s defunct series “Flash Forward”, “There’s going to be another blackout”.)
Remember that Wikipedia was blacked out for one day to protest SOPA in January 2012.  Wikipedia has a detailed explanation of the law, rather up to date, here.
“Matt Larson 10” put up this YouTube video: 
According to "activists", there are a couple of amendments: Number 6 adds provisions specifying applicability regarding “cyber-security crime”, “protection of adults”, and “protection of children”.  That is, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply online (according to some observers).  The government could use the info for “anything”.
Another amendment  (actually "good news") says that mere TOS violations don’t constitute a violation of law. 
The YouTube video above says that most people value their First Amendment rights more than Second Amendment. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Washington columnist notes background checks for "speaking out"

First, I have to note how foolish the Senate looks, having turned down improved background checks for gun purchasers this week, two days before Boston was locked down to apprehend one lone gunman. But it’s also apparent that the gun control legislation before Congress is at best a partial measure for protecting the public, and cannot be easily enacted without raising the “slippery slope” arguments on other liberties.  There are other weapons that private individuals might acquire that present a far more existential threat to the public that even assault rifles or the components of IED’s (basically 1940s technology) used this week in Boston to horrific effect. 
Petula Dvorak wrote an interesting column for the Washington Post on Thursday, “After Senate collapse, a background check for speaking out, but not for buying a gun”, link here
She writes about Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and about her “protesting” before the Senate and then being escorted out of the Senate chamber by Capitol Police – and subjected to a “background check”. 
That’s at least tangential, maybe a but coincidental, to concerns that unsupervised speech on the Internet makes it easier for terrorists to make weapons to carry out attacks (posting on Tuesday).  

Carmen Ortiz, US Attorney in Boston, will probably handle the prosecution after the terror attack, but she was also criticized for her "overzealousness" with Aaron Swartz. Her response to this appeared on Cnet here . The Boston Clobe had written a perspective on her in February here

Friday, April 19, 2013

More developments in "porn troll" copyright case

There’s more in the news about copyright trolls.  Salon recently reported the libel lawsuit by Prenda Law against a site called “Die Troll Die”, here, with a lot of the text of the complaint reproduced, here

“Die Troll Die” has its own account on its own site with materials about the case here, including an account of an invalid subpoena sent to Wordpress.
Electronic Frontier Foundation is reporting that it has moved to top a subpoena to identify the blogger(s) on the site Die Troll Die, here.   The article is long and gives a lot of supporting detail. Apparently another troll criticism site, “Fight Copyright Trolls”, link here seems also to be named.

Again, this "copyright troll" case touches several major parts of Internet law:  adult entertainment, copyright (including the "troll" problem, as seen before with Righthaven), and libel.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

After a tragic event, let's remember that First Amendment and Second Amendment rights are linked

It is very early in the investigation of the terrible event at the Boston Marathon Monday, but the earliest evidence tends to suggest relatively amateurish, homemade devices (the "pressure cooker" according to recent reports), possibly by a small group or even one individual, possibly domestic and not foreign-sponsored.
Already, a few reporters have noted that directions for making such devices are available on the Internet, as would be devices making more powerful or dangerous devices such as those often speculated about in the media since 9/11. CNN discusses the articles based on AQAP ("Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula") in conjunction with "lone wolf" activity here
There could occur a natural parallel to the gun debate, that the facility to post “dangerous” speech is a hazard to others and should be curtailed, just as in the gun control debate there is a philosophical divide over whether or how we should all become our “brother’s keepers”.   I had touched on this point as a moral issue on a Dec, 18, 2012 posting about a sermon given here in Arlington VA  at a local Presbyterian church.
But of course, much of this information is available overseas anyway, and much of it is passed among extremist groups  and militia “hand to mouth”, so it is quite questionable how much role the Internet plays in abetting incidents like these.  They have always occurred.  Posting such details would probably violate the TOS of most mainstream ISP’s and service providers. 
In fact, in the normal process of education, people come into potentially “dangerous” information as a matter of course.  Information you learn in high school chemistry (and have to know to pass the SOL’s in Virginia, at least) could be misused.   In the Army, people learn to use weapons.  In Army Basic, I learned how to take apart, clean, and reassemble an M-14, and even for someone as clumsy as me, it wasn’t hard.  This information and know-how is ubiquitous. 

CNN, on AC360 Wednesday, offered a counter to this insinuation, suggesting that investigators should use "crowd sourcing" of user-generated videos and images to help catch perpetrators. 
I can remember right after 9/11 that authorities expressed concern over the possibility that amateur websites (well before the age of social media and blogs as we know them today) could be hijacked by terrorists for the purpose of planting “steganographic” cues for further action.  But this plausible development did not actually occur as far as I know.   However, one posting on another site of mine in which I talked about the nuclear threat was hacked in April 2002, but no such other incident occurred thereafter. 
On Saturday, April 13, I reviewed a book by Michael Maloof (“A Nation Forsaken”) in which the author mentions the idea that directions for terrible weapons like RF or flux devices can be found on the Internet and even mentions examples.   I have known about the possibility of such devices being made or used ever since I was in the Army (in 1969), and have the long-held impression that  (fortunately) making or deploying them is much more difficult than some writers and publications have suggested.  The mainstream press has not discussed these very much (focusing mainly on nuclear and radioactive devices).  Nevertheless, as someone who inherited some utility stocks, I may be in a position to investigate myself, with some objectivity, how well prepared the power grid and Internet is to defend itself against what sound like (as discussed in some publications) existential threats.   

Picture: Near GWU in Washington DC as I returned to the Metro some time after learning of the event on the cell phone.  The robin on the brick stump looked right at me and wouldn't budge.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Libel lawsuit against Watchdog by GreenTech is troubling; does a harsh statement about a business model "defame" a company that uses it?

There is a disturbing libel case in a state court right now, against an “activist” (not quite “whistleblower”) website.  Perhaps it amounts to a SLAPP lawsuit, but it is the legal principle underneath that is disturbing.
The Washington Post reported Saturday, April 13, 2013,  about a lawsuit by GreenTech Automotive against a website called “Watchdog”, filed April 8 in Mississippi, over articles published there on April 1 and 3.  It also reports that the democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had founded the company but resigned in December and had withdrawn from involvement with the company.
The Post story is by Frederick Kunkle and has link here.
Green Tech Automotive has employees in Tysons Corner, Va and Mississippi and has link here.
One of the Watchdog articles was critical of the way the business model for Green Tech allegedly uses the EB-5 investment program, in which the federal government allows more visas to well-educated immigrants who invest in particular US industries, such as “green” energy and transportation.  One of the articles apparently used some inappropriate language.  But Watchdog maintains it was critical of the abstract business model (used my many companies), not of Green Tech itself.  EB-5 has come under scrutiny by state regulators in Illinois and now Virginia, and probably other states.  On the other hand, many policymakers consider it a good idea, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook wrote about the concept favorably in a recent Washington Post op-ed.  Watchdog maintains that it is not libel to report unfavorable on a business strategy or government policy that supports the strategy, and it certainly sounds like it is not.  It would be a serious matter for all small websites reporting on public policy if this could be “libel”.  (In another recent story Monday morning, Congress is reportedly considering a “point system” in immigration policy that includes both family dependencies and education, and probably stricter oversight.) 
Apparently there was also some controversy over a report involving the company’s handling of property taxes.  In fairness, it should be noted that many businesses and individuals question property taxes carefully before paying them.
Green Tech maintains that the Watchdog articles made investors skittish quickly, and is claiming $85 million in damages.  However, it is plausible that the criticism of a business model in a visible website or even blog could get around to investors and hamper funding.
Watchdog’s account of the lawsuit is here.   Watchdog has an eight-article series on McAuliffe and his business connections.  The consequences are political as much as they are financial.
This whole story brings up an “Imagine Me Naked” scenario.  Suppose I was trying to get funding for my movie.  A defamatory story about me in a blog or even on Facebook could hamper investors (or even Kickstarter).  But suppose the criticism was more abstract, about the fact I had inherited money rather than earned it.  (That is, as an Army buddy said, “Put it in “The Proles’!”)  It could be harmful and unpleasant but it is not defamatory.  Or maybe someone doesn’t like something about the whole business arrangement – although the SEC would regulate that.   The business metaphor implied by Dylan’s  spirited comic song from “Modern Family” seems to apply. You can’t “fake it”. 

Of course, another angle for the case would be “truth”.  Even if the criticisms were specific to the company, “truth is an absolute defense to libel’.  In the United States, that is.  (According to Kitty Kelly [“The Royals”] that isn’t so in Britain.)

The following video ("Free Advice Law") explains some of the important concepts.  There is also an "Opinion Rule", which would seem to apply to abstract statements about how a company or person operates.  It means "Imagine Me Fully Dressed".   The lack of a formal subjunctive mood in the English language by verb conjugation (compared to other languages like French) makes it more likely that a reader (or potential plaintiff) can misinterpret a conjectural assertion as if it were intended to be viewed as fact. 
In any cases, businesses may be quick to jump against websites that they believe may cause them do lose funding (perhaps lose a public filing) or even suffer securities price loss.  It’s the old SLAPP problem, smaller publishers don’t have the pockets to defend themselves against even questionable allegations.  

Picture: Mississippi Gulf Coast, near Bay St. Louis, after Katrina (my picture, Feb. 2006)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Inactive Account Manager" offered by Google to help members plan their digital estates

The service provider industry is coming around to address the issue of digital afterlife.

Google has announced a feature, called the “Inactive Account Manager”, available to account holders which allow users to supply friends or family members who would have access after their passing to various services and also to supply their wishes as to how long to wait to have accounts deleted, if at all.  The service will remind you when your account hasn’t been used in certain timeframes.  This sounds like an idea that could be useful for people who travel on foreign trips away from Google access (to China), people in the hospital, on long sequestered jury duty, and the like.  
The link for Google’s announcement is here.
 I have not tried this yet, but it appears that the members does not have to secure the permission of the family member or friend to be listed. 
The Washington Post reported on the matter Saturday, here.

ABC News gave a more detailed report, and compared it to Facebook’s policy, here. States are beginning to pass laws giving more powers to executors, viewing digital and intellectual property as part of the estate. 
I will soon be making decisions on what should happen to my own blogs and websites and social media accounts after I am gone.  I do not think that they can simply stay up forever.  In fact, conventional sites will not because the space is paid for, as is the space for Picasa pictures.  There is a tremendous library in my postings since 2006 on many policy issues, as well as many reviews of books and movies, crossed referenced in many ways.  I would hope there would be a way to make the material available to researchers of the history of such issues as COPA, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, censorship, liability, Section 230, SOPA, and the like.  Perhaps there could develop a way to work with Wikipedia.
I suspect that I will “know” from the “real” afterlife, but not be able to do anything about it, until starting over with another incarnation.  But that might be light years away, on another planet.  Will Google and Facebook transcend the speed of light and propagate to other solar systems?  (After all, there is a Youtube video somewhere claiming that Mark Zuckerberg is an extraterrestrial alien, like Clark Kent in "Smallville".)   
By the way, the idea of a “digital afterlife” may not be facetious.  In the mid 1990s, the now defunct Omni magazine published an article about the idea of downloading someone’s soul onto a harddrive before death (rather like in the movie “Cold Souls”, where Paul Giamatti’s fit into a chickpea).  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Can a mere hyperlink lead to a defamation lawsuit? It may be "safer" in Canada than in the US

Can a blogger or social media user be held responsible for libel for merely a hyperlink to defamatory content posted by someone else?
It seems that he or she can, and perhaps more so in the US than in Canada.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation page on libel and defamation never quite gets around to this exact point. It does say that republication of defamatory content may be actionable as defamation. The basic EFF link is here. It does go on to mention Section 230 protection for hosts of forums or for bloggers who allow comments. 

The question is different from those issues concerning hyperlinks and copyright (March 31, 2013). 

On October 2011, the Canadian Supreme Court had ruled  that “Internet links are not libel”, as in a CBC story by Megan Fitzpatrick (website url) here.
Search engines refer repeatedly to the Canadian decision but give little guidance for the US.
There is a “single publication rule” which may prove applicable, as explained in this Wiki.
There is a paper on HKLaw by Drew Shenkman in June 2010 (link)  which goes on to discuss some cases in New Jersey and California and suggests that the “single publication rule” is likely to reduce liability exposure to "linkers”, with the source here (the article is called "Defamation by Click").

On the other hand, there is this stern warning  from Oracle (and Burleson Consulting) on the matter, an article that appears older, link here.

It would seem that a blog posting, tweet or Facebook posting that merely reproduce a link to a defamatory article without providing any additional context  could present some risk.  So would intentionally providing more links in order to cause search engine results to present a “defamatory impression” and harm “online reputation”.
It would seem that the issue could also invite SLAPP lawsuits in some states.  A plaintiff could try to intimidate an amateur publisher, claiming that the extra article was gratuitous and therefore intended only to harm (although the single publication rule could help here, as could the “street smarts” notion that “the damage to reputation was already done” by first publication.  One problem is that frivolous suits can be brought for anything.  Without further legal protection, plaintiffs are limited only by the notion that courts could censure  or penalize their attorneys for bringing frivolous suits in bad faith. 

Don't "Blame Canada"!