Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Col. Jack Jacobs: "If Not Now, When?" A call for more equitable sacrifice, and universal military service


Authors: Col. Jack Jacobs (RET), with Douglas Century.
Title: "If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need."
Publication and description: New York: Berkeley, 2008. ISBN 978-0-425-22359-8. 291 pages, indexed, hardcover, 20 chapters with an Epilogue.

We could add another subtitle: "If not Me, then Who?"

This book starts with a Foreword (“The Man in Seat 2B”) by Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News. Williams interviewed Jacobs on Christmas Day, and placed the book in a moral context of duty and sacrifice. He says in the foreword that 120 million of us think our stories and ideas are worthy of being read (as we put them into blogs), but that Col. Jacobs’s story is set out by sacrifice and has really earned the privilege of being listened to.

The book is largely a detailed memoir, with a lot colorful metaphors and cute observations – almost as if he anticipates a Tim Burton biographical film. Jacobs, born into a relatively poor Jewish family, was able to attend Rutgers in New Jersey and enter the ROTC program. He would be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and demand Infantry, and learn his place quickly. Because he was a “college grad”, he would be assigned as an advisor in Vietnam before the buildup, and would see combat in the Delta soon, and suffer a curious head wound (his sinus would have to be blown back up with a balloon), for which he would win a Congressional Medal of Honor. His small size made him a difficult target and combat and may have saved his life. Jacobs is now the vice chairman of the Medal of Honor Committee. He would serve another combat tour shortly before Nixon agreed to peace, and many other posts, such as teaching at West Point. He would retire and become a bond trader and financial engineer, working with derivatives in the 1990s. Ironically, in the book he is blissfully oblivious to the financial crisis that derivatives would produce.

(I recall a particular experience in my own Basic Training at Fort Jackson in 1968: we were at MOS orientation, when a grizzled sergeant said about my record, "Hey, you missed a college grad!" I never had to go to Vietnam, but I was a "bad detail man.")

Jacobs married early, and eventually divorced, and on p. 214 writes “Military service is particularly hard on marriages with weak foundations, and it is surprising that any survive the extended multiple deployments, long hours, and frequent relocations.” I could take this somewhere that he doesn’t. “Heterosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Uh huh.

Earlier, at the beginning, he ties marriage with hints of the major moral controversy of concern to him. He notes that during World War II, men got “points” awarded that could get them returned to the States. Being married and having children counted a lot.

Later, on p 126, Jacobs mentions the social divisions created by draft deferments in the 1960s. He notes that marriage and/or fatherhood and then being a college student could get you out of the draft. Actually, the marriage and fatherhood deferments had been eliminated by 1965 with Johnson and McNamara escalated in Vietnam. Student deferments would be eliminated by the lottery in 1969. He doesn’t specifically mention Nixon’s elimination of the draft in 1973 (although that’s a bit more complicated than it sounds). President Kennedy, however, had promoted the idea that married men should be excluded from the draft, an idea that would shock civil libertarians (especially gay ones) today.

Later, in discussing his second combat deployment, Jacobs espouses a philosophy of risk-taking which suggests that society regards some risk-taking as a necessary virtue to be expected of everyone.

But in the Epilogue, he becomes very critical of the asymmetry in risk taking and hardship bearing that is necessary to maintain freedom. He writes, on p 274, “Like military units and corporations, societies survive only if all its members participate in nurturing it, and the survival of the American democratic experiment is not enhanced by the asymmetrical distribution of sacrifice that we have now.” He sees this is “the” Moral Issue. He calls for universal military service, rather than a return to the draft through “selective service.” This may comport with his background and familiarity with Israel, which has compulsory military service for both sexes (and now accepts gays). It’s important to remember that the Selective Service System is still in business today and ready to go if Congress ever does reinstate the draft.

Shortly after 9/11, in fact, some people called for reinstating conscription. Charles Moskos, who helped author “don’t ask don’t tell”, advocated conscription as a way of making the entire population responsive and attentive to foreign threats, and at the same time backed away from supporting the “don’t tell” policy on gays. Other Senators and congressmen, usually Democrats (ranging from Carl Levin to Charles Rangell) have sometimes called for bringing back the draft, but the Pentagon has opposed it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dennis Damp: The Book of U.S. Government Jobs


Author: Dennis V. Damp.
Title: "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs: Where They Are, What's Available, & How to Get One."
Publication and Description: 1986-2008 (10th Edition). Brookhaven Press. ISBN 0-943641-26-8. Paper, 338 pages, 8 x 11 pages, 12 chapters.

Recently CNN had a “your money” segment introducing the author of this “how-to” series, and it seems now that government could be one of the more promising sources of employment for many people. There are about 2.7 million civilian federal employees. Outside of military service, many of the opportunities are in areas like law enforcement, border patrol, corrections, regulation, intelligence, air traffic control, homeland security including airport screeners. Some of the jobs, like some of law enforcement, are a bit quasi military in nature and have maximum ages and have physical requirements. Many require security clearances and background investigations. But outside of the actual uniformed services, none enforce a policy like “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Government employment has evolved over time. Back in the 1960s, everybody filled out a green Form 171, Application for Federal Employment. I remember the “personal” questions on the last page about such items as Communist Party membership. My first wage-earning job was as a laboratory assistant in the rheology lad at the National Bureau of Standards, on the old grounds now part of the University of the District of Columbia. Though not covered in the book, it’s noteworthy that civilian civil service dropped the official “ban” on employing homosexuals around 1973.

Federal employment might seem like a patriotic endeavor in these tougher times. One could come out of early retirement and go back to work for the SEC or Treasury and believe one has something constructive to do with economic recovery.

It used to be that the Civil Service Commission (on E Street in Washington) had much more pursestrings on how agencies hire than it does now. There are about 13 cabinet departments and over 100 agencies. In the past, a written multiple choice test was required, and still is for some jobs. But it has become much more common for agencies to have the authority to hire on their own. Many of them use the USAJobs website, and a supplementary site to actually house the applications run by a company called AvueCentral.

The application process is called “examination” but it no longer usually requires a formal written test. Many professional jobs score applicant answers on essay questions called “KSA’s”, or “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities”. (or “KSAO’s” to include “other factors”). A typical job application will ask many general questions that seem to overlap, but they will focus on “knowledge” “skill” and “ability” and should be answered in detail from that perspective, even if some of the answers overlap. One should be as specific about past responsibilities, accomplishments and education as possible, in terms of what can be mapped to the government’s ideas about KSA’s.

On p. 166, Damp writes

“Remember, this is the federal government. You have to complete the paperwork to beat out the competition. Federal government jobs are rated this way to eliminate favoritism and to provide a level playing field for all those who apply.”

Some typical examples of KSA’s are

"Knowledge of automated data processing functions, operating systems, software applications, and utility programs.

"Ability to communicate effectively other than in writing."

Sometimes if one applies in more than one GS grade range, the same KSA questions will be repeated for each included grade, but the answers may be rated differently within different grades.

Damp has separate chapters on special areas, like the United States Postal Service (which gives a written test including shape analogies and number sequences, as well as memory for addresses and zip codes). Homeland security gives as test for airport security screeners including a T-F personality test, but particularly a baggage recognition test which most people will not be able to pass without having had screener employment before or without specific training.

Here is a reference on federal KSA writing. The reference discusses the difference between a federal KSA and KSAO (which to me sounds like a "distinction without a difference").

USAJobs has its own link for tips on writing KSA's, and suggests quantifying accomplishments: "think money, think time" it says, link here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brian Michael Jenkins: Rand corporation expert asks "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"



Back in 1969, as a draftee fortunate enough to escape Vietnam because of his education, we had a lot of spirited discussions in the barracks. Most of the men were well educated (I remember “Rado Suhl” and “FAM”) and becoming reasonably socially liberal. They probably remember me if they stumbled across this entry (I was “Chickennan who was everywhere). They resented the draft and the War perhaps, but they still felt we were a lot better off than everyone in the Commie world, where the rule was “… to each according to his needs.” Some of us knew about the 1967 film “The War Game” and the idea that we could wind up with a world not living in. Most of us, in 1968, felt that there was a better chance that Nixon would end the war (and the draft) and get us out of the Johnson-McNamara dominoes.

While in the barracks, I worked on a handwritten draft of a novel titled “The Proles” where a nuclear exchange, after some clues, happens at intermission, and then “the whole world goes back to the bay” (in the Army, that was a code word for having to do KP again). Everyone was reduced to the basics.

So, in the 1980s I wrote some novels where, toward the end, low level Communist operatives invade the country and set off plutonium dust in a few cities. The country breaks into chaos and becomes decentralized. The novels were predicated on a character like me following a super-ocelot figure to a re-education “academy”, where the clues of the incoming attack would appear. The superman did not have clay feet.

The book at issue here is Brian Michael Jenkins. “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? “ published by Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59102-656-3. Hardcover, 457 pages, indexed. 4 Parts, 19 Chapters. Jenkins is a former assistant to the president of Rand Corporation.

In the early part of the book, Jenkins recounts his own research into asymmetric threats as far back as the late 60s. Some of them were associated with Communism or the extreme left. Others were associated with religious cults. It was until the 1990s that the Chechen rebels were the first group to have access to radiological materials. Other groups, like the Japanese doomsday cult leader Aum Shinrikyo, tried chemical WMD’s. In general, there was often an ideology proposing a fixed, often patriarchal social structure, sometimes supposedly dictated by scriptures, where everyone owed his life to others in the group (or to God. Authoritarian social structures, as often argued in screeds or manifestos, can produce stability, maybe sustainability, but discourage individual creativity or self-promotion at the hidden expense to the group. Terrorists seem to extend the super-moralism of the radical Left of the late 60s, sometimes running around the horn into religious fascism. They seem to fear the emotional flexibility required for tolerance.

Jenkins talks about some of the specific technical controversies, like “red mercury” (associated with the neutron bomb) or the suitcase nukes. He has a good deal of skepticism about the rumors about these devices. (Nevertheless, an online copy of a chapter in my second book was hacked in April 2002 right where I started to talk about the suitcase issue.) George Tenet’s memoir books “At the Center of the Storm” from Harper suggest a great deal of ambiguity about the efforts of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in actually succeeding in getting nuclear materials.


One of his strongest points is that the “terror” is inherent in the asymmetry itself, even if such weapons are never used. The terrorists leave no return address and presumably have nothing to lose. Deterring them is not completely hopeless, however, he says. They do have some incentive toward restraint. They are rather arbitrary, however, in what private citizens are “accomplices” and who really are “innocent”. They do tend to blame the victim.

But that may bring on the strongest point. Radical Islam especially has been able to take advantage of the instant news of today’s world to get attention. Starting with CNN and the news networks in the 80s leading to individual speakers and bloggers on the Internet today, media speakers have an incentive to get news distributed as quickly as possible. That enables the propagation of terror without actual events. A world where there is less social or political structure to the dissemination of information may, while offering transparency, a social good, work to the advantage of terrorists. Journalists could face ethical dilemmas in that, of they report everything, they could be serving the ends of the “enemy.”

Another input into the fireplace is fiction, which works both ways. Intelligence agencies may now call on authors to imagine potential weaknesses, but Jenkins raises the question if overly realistic fiction is informing future terrorists of subtle physical and even psychological vulnerabilities in western society, that is, "giving them ideas."

In the last section of the book, Jenkins has a chapter “A Bright Yellow Light” and he composes a simulation of a partial-ton crude nuclear detonation in New York City, with all the questions that would follow for the president. I have to admit that reading the chapter raised my blood pressure.

Jenkins argues that it is unlikely that an asymmetric terrorist group can bring down modern civilization as we know it, although there could be imposition of martial law (happening during the Civil War on and in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor) in some areas. He doesn’t mention the possibility of electromagnetic pulse from a weapon fired from sea to high altitude (possibly under the aegis of Iran), a threat proposed by Clifford May and others recently. Although it’s not clear this is really technically likely to work, it could knock out all electronics in a large part of the US. This, and a bioterror pandemic, could be the most dangerous possibilities we face.

The reader may want to check out the review of this book, the review itself called “Terror in Extremis”, by Robert L. Gallucci, link here, in The National Interest, Oct. 30, 2008.

Visitors will want to look at my older review of the 2004 book (Times Books) by Graham Allison, “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe”, here. Jenkins approach, to make “terror” distinct from “terrorism” is probably more subtle.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

National Geographic offers stunning "real" photographs from Mars


Author John Updike has a big article in the December 2008 National Geographic Magazine starting on p 86 with a stunning “Cinerama” large photograph of the edge of Victoria Crater, apparently taken by rover Opportunity. The magazine says that the dusky red-brown-orange color of the desert scene is very close to what a human visitor standing on the crater rim would really see. The sky seems “cloudy” with dust. There are lots of strewn rocks and smooth columns, fractured naturally. What is missing is greenery. Otherwise, the scene could almost have come from Utah (or even countryside north of Abilene, Texas). But if you stood there the whole planet would be like this (with some occasional ice or dry ice), with only a few rovers or remains from human landers that have reached the planet scattered around the surface. (Sorry, there’s no Extreme Train to tour the landscapes, like in John Carpenter’s 1998 film “Ghosts of Mars”.) For copyright reasons, I can’t just reproduce it on the blog, but you can look at the photo online here. Yes, I encourage the visitor to buy a hard copy.

The backside of the photo has an aerial shot of 2000 foot deep canyon in the polar regions, with some water ice, with some computer-driven colorizing.

The Updike article is called “Vision of Mars: Robot Explorers transform a distant object of wonder into intimate terrain.”

I’d love to see a similar issue with panoramic photos from Saturn’s moon Titan.

Picture: From Texas, north of Benjamin, taken by me in 2005.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Book business affected by Internet competition more than economy


James Gleick has a perspective on book publishing in The New York Times, Sat. Nov. 29, 2008, “How to Publish Without Perishing,” link here. It appears on p 10 of the Sunday (Nov. 30) paper “Week in Review” section.

It is getting more difficult for traditional trade book publishers, just like newspapers, to make their earnings target in what has been regarded as a numbers driven business. Publishers may complain about competition from the Internet, but the whining is perhaps hard to justify. Publishers (or retailers like Amazon) now offer Kindle downloads, and a few years ago experimented with portable book readers and Softlock technology. Yet, nothing is so convenient as the acid-free paperback novel when on the beach (note the pun) or in a long line at a movie opening. Because some books become very popular during economic downturns, some publishers might actually find counter-cyclical opportunity.

Gleick talks about the decline of the printed encyclopedia (remember that in the 50s people did well selling encyclopedias door-to-door for a living - we bought the 1950 World Book, with its great color-coded topographic state maps unmatched since – that way) and dictionary, although if you look at the activity in any high school library that may sound unfounded. But the printed book, whether novel or non-fiction, remains a great utility.

The commentator also discusses the Google book search settlement, with all its legal complexities driven by the fact that different parties view copyright and “fair use” so differently. But Gleick points out that the Internet is doing a great deal to rescue books that have gone out of print and otherwise could not be seen at all.

One problem with trade non-fiction is that it tends to become obsolete so quickly. A celebrity, especially a politician, writes a book, but in two years all the issues have changed. How long will books on the current economic crisis sell?

Even fiction authors, if they deal with modern circumstances, can find their work becomes obsolete. In the 1980s I spent a lot of time on a long manuscript based on an eventual Communist invasion of the United States. But that became obsolete with the fall of Berlin and other satellite countries and then with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Some day soon I will look at my old manuscripts and try to recap what was in all of them.

As I’ve covered before, companies like iUniverse (which recently merged with AuthorHouse and relocated to Indiana) offer cooperative or “supported self-publishing” but have also worked with Author’s Guild to bring back out-of-print works. For example, I purchased novelist Allan W. Eckert’s “The HAB Theory” (about a terrestrial pole shift and resulting cataclysm, orig. 1976) and the same (diverse) novelist's “Crossbreed” (a Disney-like story about a resourceful wild bobcat/domestic feline animal and his reconciliation with man), originally from 1968. I don't know how well these businesses are doing in the current economic downturn. Maybe a visitor does know!

One can imagine an "ethical" debate: to gain credibility for what is published, should authorship, publication and distribution be accomplished by separate parties?

Update: Dec. 4

It looks like some B Dalton's book stores close Jan. 17, 2009, at least near me. The sign directs one to a Barnes and Noble at some other location. The "smaller" chain book store may not survive this economic climate. And we need to be concerned about the specialty neighborhood book stores, like Lambda Rising, as they must compete with larger chains, now in a difficult economy.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell: "Outliers: The Story of Success"

Author: Malcolm Gladwell.
Title: Outliers: The Story of Success.
Publication and description: New York: Little Brown, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-01792-3. 309 pages, hardcover, indexed. The book has two parts, nine chapters, and Introduction and an Epilogue. The pages are small, the print relatively large, and there are some charts.

The author is a well known social journalist and author who writes for the New Yorker. His own mixed background (which includes mixed nationalities of Canada, Britain and the U.S., and mixed race, even if that’s not very obvious at a glance) come into discussion at the “end” of his book, with some climactic effect. I’ll add here, right now, that mixed international background seems, by itself, to confer opportunity. Look at our president-elect. I know young men with dual Canadian-US and British-US citizenships (and even of a background including Pakistan, Germany, Spain and the U.S.) and all have benefited enormously.

An individualistic society tends to look at personal merit as an absolute attribute, as if it could be measured and compared to that of others. At least, such a style of thinking can come from taking “personal responsibility” to its ultimate “logical” conclusion. I’ve even indulged in that before, drawing analogies from the use of FICO scores.

But here, Gladwell argues convincingly that station in life and, particularly, spectacular success often come from a combination of circumstances that reach a tipping point, giving the person some decisive advantage over others in pursuing some goal. One can think of it as like the point in a chess game when accumulated small positional advantages suddenly lead to a tactically won game.

The word “outlier” in his book title has some personal history for me. Back in 1989 I worked for a health care consulting company (the predecessor of Lewin, which is a big player in today’s health care debate). There was a step in a simulation model that identified and reported “outliers” in Medicare reimbursement. It was the longest running and most complicated program in the model, and I found a way to simplify it and make it run more quickly and at lower cost. That turned out to be critical in a few months when he had to do massive reruns to keep a particular critical client. So the word sticks. The book cover has some marbles, with one marble off to the side as the “outlier”. It sounds like we are talking about stars or planets. The Earth may or may not be an “outlier” in Gladwell’s sense in being a home for socialized intelligent life.

Gladwell’s Part I is called “Opportunity” (like the Martian rover), and his first chapter is called “The Matthew Effect” with a reference to the Parable of the Talents. While religious meaning would take us afar from the book, the parable is well known in presenting the paradox that God, it seems, give some people more ability than it gives others. It seems God takes from the poor and gives to the rich! But in reality, it is the circumstances around the person that make him “better”. Part II is called “Legacy” (like a legacy system in information technology) and puts more emphasis on how broad cultural circumstances affect the accomplishments of peoples in whole nations.

Gladwell starts out with one of the clearest examples of imbalance: in many sports, tryout deadlines favor people born almost a year before the deadline. Older kids tend to have an advantage over younger kids because the developmental curve (especially for boys) is so steep. So, in almost any professional sport, there are clusters of people born at certain times of the year. The same idea tracks into school as a whole. Boys born in the late fall or early winter and held back (chronologically) from entering school for six or eight months often do better than their classmates born in July or August, because they are biologically more mature when in the same grade. (Six months at grade school age makes a big difference.)

Gladwell then moves on to talk about the extraordinary achievements of people in computers and music. Several well known icons like Bill Joy, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs had the good fortune to have computer access as kids in the early days of big-scale computing, including terminal access (with “time sharing”, a novelty in the early 70s) where they could get really good at coding. Musicians often have the same effect. Gladwell says it takes about 10000 hours of practice to get really good at anything (good enough to go professional and become an international celebrity at it). One could challenge some observations. Mozart, he says, didn’t write any real masterpieces until his 20s. He had practiced composing for 15 years until he was really good. One could question this: Eugene D’Albert’s first piano concerto is an obscure masterpiece that seems to have been completed (with all its innovations) before the age of 20. Domink Maican has become well known as a composer before age 20, but, to be sure, has been around music in his home (and in several countries) since birth.

I’ve noted on my information technology blog that the “10000 hours” issue does affect learning curves that employers need to pay more attention to as technology changes so quickly, leaving older employees marginalized. The observation also applies to recession-driven career changes at mid-life, as to nursing, for example. Also, the “practice” effect seems to be more beneficial during youth, while the teenage brain grows and then “prunes” itself to specific skill sets of rarified expertise that seem like “gifts” to the outsider. The WB series “Everwood” presented the life of a teenage piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) and the enormous investment his father would make in his talents, for it all to crash because of a tragedy. The trouble was, Ephram was a “normal teenager” in all other ways, a fact that his supercilious surgeon father overlooked.


Gladwell offers an interesting analysis of academic intelligence and how (when stratified) it applies to affirmative action. Once students are “good enough” to get in (say, to law school) their performance later in life is pretty much independent of grades or even “IQ”. Hence, it may be morally acceptable that affirmative action programs, for a while at least, allow a result where consideration of race results in lower-scored applicants.

Gladwell also correctly notes that people are sometimes taken out of opportunity because of compulsory demands made by others, such as military service and the draft (in the past). Of course, compulsory demands sometimes can create hidden opportunity, too.

In the second part of the book, Gladwell gets into problems that are more deeply rooted in the various cultures of people. He traces the history of “honor culture” among southern families back to shepherds back in rural Ireland and Scotland, leading to a major subtle cultural problem today in the US, one which probably prolonged segregation and racism. That is, the idea that a man’s “reputation” is defined by his ability to defend his family from outsiders rather than by complying to right and wrong as usually expressed in an impartial system of law. One could imagine that the same thinking style affects crime families, and forms the plot basis of more than one soap opera. Imagine how such an issue leads to other social tensions. For example, this may explain why President Clinton’s attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military led to so much resistance (and the policy “don’t ask don’t tell” which reflects a hypocritical and pretectionist attitude about many things in the wider society).

He also gives interesting observations on how Asian cultural values affect their competitiveness in both negative and positive ways. On the negative side, Asian languages (particularly Korean) place (in their grammar) emphasis on the “social” relationship between the speaker and listener. This has a serious impact on the way directions are perceived in safety-sensitive areas like airlines cockpits. The listener is held to more level of responsibility than the speaker, as in the West. (This sounds a bit like the new “implicit content” issue on the Internet.) On the other hand, Asian languages represent numbers in a straightforward way, which makes mathematics much easier for Asian kids to grasp very early in life. Is it any wonder that so many kids of Asian descent are in all the AP math classes in American high schools?

Furthermore, Asian geography encouraged decentralization of agriculture, as with the rice paddy. As a result, Asian culture developed a more dependable work ethic, than European and then American systems so dependent on both irregular rest or hibernation periods and on a feudal, political or capitalist business hierarchy. Asian culture translates into better success in school. Innovative school systems like the KIPP system work by increasing the length of time in school and changing the sense of work ethic among kids to more like that of Asian culture.

I found all of this interesting when substitute teaching. I got feedback that I was not an effective “authority figure.” Well, why did I need to be one, and why was that expected on a short term assignment? I found that in many classes students accomplished even more when I was there than when a regular teacher was; when students are “self-starters” then a laid-back approach works really well. But younger kids from certain cultures seem to need to find the same authority structure reproduced for them at school than they know at home before they can apply themselves.

Gladwell goes light on the “moral” side of all this, saying that we need to provide more opportunity for everyone. Indeed, I grew up in a time when non-performers at school were more likely to be drafted and sent into harms way (in Vietnam). I developed a certain “moral rationalization” for all this that has stayed with me somewhat to this day. We do need to do much more to share the opportunity, and that has a bearing on what should be expected of the rest of us (including those among us who did not have our own children). “Equality of opportunity” but not necessarily of results was one of the biggest moral issues of my day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Daniel J. Solove: Understanding Privacy (review)

Author: Daniel J. Solove (an Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School in Washington DC).
Title: Understanding Privacy.
Publication: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Description: ISBN 0-674-02772-8, 258 pages, hardcover. Good Amazon link.

I recall back in 1996 at the Libertarian Party Convention in Washington that we had a Sunday afternoon hotel room discussion on the face that the “right of privacy” is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution anywhere. Potential presidential candidate Douglas Ohmen said something like, “It’s simple. Just word it, ‘The right to privacy shall not be infringed!’”

My gut reaction at that summer moment was that privacy is surely too complicated for such a simple phrase to cover it. In fact, in my first book, I proposed a “28th Amendment” to be called a Right to Privacy, Intimate Association, Life, and Pursuit of Happiness Amendment", which, for the record, is easily found here.

I look back into my mind, to the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, when a notorious group called the “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS” was attacking the gay community; I remember a forum at some evangelical church where a right wing attorney got up and said “There is no such thing as a right to privacy.” I thought, this is ridiculous, how can that be?

In fact, I go back to my own William and Mary expulsion in the fall of 1961 for admitting “latent homosexuality” to the Dean of Men under pressure, followed by the long episode of “psychiatric treatment” that plays out in my mind today like a Clint Eastwood-directed movie. And then those questions on Civil Service job application forms. “Sexual perversion” was a specific offense for which you could be fired (until 1973).

What was the big deal, I wondered, with my rational, post-teen brain? You’re talking about thoughtcrimes, and about things that are supposed to happen in private, between consenting adults. Isn’t this protected by a “right to privacy”? It seemed that the government, colleges, and employers would be very concerned about my supposed “private life” then. As late as 1965, Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced belligerently, “if we find homosexuals in our department, we discharge them.”

Then, fast forward ahead to the debate over gays in the military in 1993, right after Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban. Senator Sam Nunn screamed in Congress that soldiers “have no privacy” like you and I have. They don’t go home at night. That may be getting warm as to the formulation Dr. Solove is concerned about. Of course, those of us who wanted to lift the ban asserted that even soldiers have private lives off base and the military was interfering with it in a potentially unconstitutional manner, and setting a potentially bad example for everyone else. (Remember Barney Frank’s compromise, before Bill Clinton’s?)

After Stonewall in 1969, in fact, “privacy” and sometimes anonymity (definitely related) formed the main paradigm that justified “gay rights” and as the movement would develop in the 1970s. AIDS brought it out into the open, but it was in the 1990s that the whole paradigm shifted. Not just because of the military ban and gay marriage issues, but because now there was a searchable Internet, and people could promote themselves. “Privacy” became a more decision-control concept. People wanted to have their cake and eat it too. There was this new problem with the thermodynamics and entropy of privacy. Equality (aka the trade dress of the Human Rights Campaign) became the new mantra – and I suspect that law professors (perhaps Dr. Solove himself) are crafting new “university press” books on “equal protection” because it is, like privacy, a shape-shifting concept. But, coming back to privacy, we have to reiterate what Dr. Solove says on p. 1, "Nobody can articulate what it means."

Having traced through all my personal reactions to this book, I now have to get back to Dr. Solove’s basic thesis. Note that the title of his book "Understanding Privacy" is itself terse; there is no subtitle to "explain further" to the casual human browser. The book is relatively short, and (coming from Harvard) expensive. Much of it is written in the passive voice, very impersonally. I love the black-and-white cover picture from the Very Large Array in New Mexico (from the Carl Sagan film "Contact"). Privacy is not a concept that can be decomposed into simple factors, like a polynomial on an algebra test. It is rather a network of related public goods that share common elements, but in a networked rather than hierarchal model, somewhat following the model of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Privacy needs to be developed in a “bottom up” fashion, not in the “top down testing” model so familiar to systems analysts in the information technology world (like me).

The book is divided into six chapters: “A Concept in Disarray”, “Theories of Privacy…” “Reconstructing Privacy”, “The Value of Privacy”, “A Taxonomy of Privacy” and “A New Understanding.” Solove points out that, over centuries, philosophers or ethicists have tended to consider privacy as antithetical to public or community good. Even today there is real tension between personal “privacy” and “free speech” (and probably free entry and free distribution). Sometimes there is a real ethical controversy between the public's need to know how some important historical event happened, and the sensitive and subjective reputational exposures of the parties involved in the event, which those parties might have considered "private" in nature. But Solove takes this further, by describing living conditions in Europe a couple centuries ago and in colonial America, where families could not afford the idea of “privacy” as modern people expect it. Intimate relations and bodily functions took place within the sight of others, especially within the extended family or community. There was no concept that sexual acts could really be “private.”

Solove also explains how the family was at one time an instrument of socialization, not of expressing “love” even in a committed marriage. The head of the family was privileged to control the moral compass of the lives of other family members, even adults. That was intrinsically within the scope of the family and marriage as an institution. In fact, I think the loss of this influence (from the family) actually drives a lot of the gay marriage debate today. The individual was responsible to his family even if her or she did not have his or her own children. In fact, you had to get married and have your own children to have full rights as an adult. (This point seems very relevant to our growing eldercare problem.) But it is not so much a matter of privacy or equality as an idea that the “family” was supposed to be the major source of social identity for everyone, removing the need to be judged by a global scale. You "lived" for and through your family, not just for yourself or your own "identity" (all the more so if you didn't marry and procreate yourself). That has all changed, but not for everyone.

At this point, it’s important to note that the journalism and publishing law world is familiar with “invasion of privacy” from a somewhat compressed viewpoint as expressed in the Restatement of Torts, here with specific focus on concepts like unreasonable intrusion, misappropriate, or false light.

As the book progresses, Solove, particularly in his “taxonomy” chapter, gets into the various instantiations of what we think of as “privacy” in the modern world. These can expand greatly upon the usual concept defined from the “Restatement” in legal handbooks. There is an enormous panoply of issues and problems, ranging from “online reputation” associated with postings made by others on social networking sites and blogs, to the risk of identity theft from data loss by major companies, to home security threats that exist for some people because data brokerage companies sell reports cheaply helping others find out where someone lives. A person may publish facts about himself (as in a searchable blog or social networking profile) in order to support a political argument (particularly in areas like gay rights) and cause other family members to feel (indirectly) intruded upon or perhaps even endangered. All of these problems involve weighing various public goods, responsibilities, and downstream liabilities. They could lead to the rewriting of some of the common torts manuals, like the Restatement, some day. Indeed, in other countries (which Solove often details) the concept privacy protection is often more expansive.

In the taxonomy, Solove does cover a number of the problems that occur. For example, “aggregation” (the “non Euclidean” triangle inequality, perhaps in reverse: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) is a concept where pieces of information about someone accumulate (often with the help of search engines) and potentially could produce a misleading picture of the person. The problem (when you combine it with Solove’s concept of “disclosure”) is exacerbated by the fact that now, others can publish seemingly innocuous information about the person that stays searchable forever. (This gets us to the “reputation defense” problem of Solove’s earlier book; but we have to add that “reputation” is such a subjective concept and lives in the eyes of the beholder.) The archetypal issue in gay rights regarding privacy – sodomy laws, finally overturned in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas (but not in 1986 with Bowers v. Hardwick) – is a prime example of what Solove terms “decisional interference,” the last term in his taxonomy.

Whenever I watch CWTV's "Smallville" program and see the young adult Clark Kent agonize over protecting his "identity" and protecting others from the hazards of learning his "identity" (as an extraterrestrial), I think, law professors will have real fun with the ethical dilemmas in the show. It reminds me of "don't ask don't tell". There's plenty of "privacy invasion" in the mobile blogs of CW's "Gossip Girl", too.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Naomi Wolf: "Give Me Liberty": The Philosophy, then the Handbook

Author: Naomi Wolf.
Other contributors: Cutis Ellis, Lisa Witter, Elizabeth Curtis, Will Coghlan, Marjorie Cohn, Heidi Boghosian, Trevor “Oyate”, Raymond D. Powell, Wende Jager-Hyman, Mary Jacksteit, Stephanie Burger, Mark Crispin Miller, Annette Warden Dickerson, Lauren Melodia, Diane Keefe, Curtis Ellis, Steven C. Bennett
Title: "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries".
Publication: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Description: ISBN 1-4165-9056-0. 368 pages, paper, in 3 parts, the last comprising 8 sections.

There is a 27-minute video of Naomi discussing her book here. Wolf also has a detailed discussion on The Huffington Post, called “The Battle Plan”, Sept. 16, 2008, link here.

This book strikes me as a statement about the “layering” of liberty, and of the techniques we use to establish and secure it. I must confess, I haven’t ret her previous books like “The End of America” and “The Beauty Myth” but I can certainly see where she is coming from. Two of the chapters are called “Fake Patriotism” and “Fake Democracy”.

The book architecture consists of three “floors” or “stories”. Part I is titled “What Is America: Not a Country: A State of Mind”. (Compare that to John McCain’s “Country First”.) Part II is called “Core Values”, which develops seven Principles, of which the first is maybe the most important: “We are required to speak freely.” Part III is called “America: The User’s Guide” and has a large number of individual contributions on how to participate in various forms of activism.

A core historical event that generates this whole book is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, made in Richmond (not Williamsburg) at St. John’s Church in 1775. She starts the last chapter in Part II (before the Handbook) with a discussion of this speech, in a short chapter called “A New American Revolution.”

It’s useful to think back to what British and, by and large, European society had been like. There was the notion of “the divine right of Kings” and a landed aristocracy. There was a belief that people fit into a hierarchy, and somehow the people above were “better” but that, as a kind of moral rationalization, they had the responsibility to take care of those under them and give their lives meaning. Arguments had been invented to track this belief system back to Biblical scriptures. Today, we see the same kind of thinking in the patriarchal family, creating a lot of social controversy.

The American Revolution (as would then the French Revolution, somewhat differently) challenged the idea that moral governance was a top-down process. People would have the right to govern themselves, set their own taxes. They would make, enforce and interpret their own laws. We would have governing principles called republicanism and, related to it in time, federalism. But self-government was, in its time, a radical boost to a sense of self-empowerment.

At the same time, the American revolution did not try to settle focused social controversies, particularly those dealing with individual rights, the way they understand them today. It could not settle the issue of race, or the nuances of free speech law as we see it today, or the subtle problems of family relationships that overflow into today’s debate over gay rights. But at least the Revolution provided a (constitutional) framework by which these deeper problems would eventually be addressed. The Revolution provided us with a democratic framework that would facilitate what she calls "self-correction."

But Naomi Watt’s concern is that the whole experience of democracy is under threat, particularly given the past eight years under the Bush administration, following 9/11. That’s nothing new, because we’ve always seen evidence of corruption in our democratic institutions. We had them during the 50s (McCarthyism), and the 60s, with the scandals underneath the Vietnam war and eventually Watergate. We’ve always had them.

It seems that the author (and her contributors) throw the kitchen sink at the problems, discussing almost every mechanism in democracy, especially (toward the end) the threats to the electoral process. Early in the book, in fact, Wolf gives an interesting discussion (in the context of what happens when an “amateur” runs for public office) of how representative democracy has gotten corrupted by the way special interests and “political consultants” (the K Street crowd) make money off the system. Getting elected is supposed to be the way to get things done, but you need a “political resume” first. (Look at Barack Obama’s.) Along the way, she describes how middlemen are supposed to get "leads" in almost any consultancy or agency: you tap on absolutely everyone you know, even your used car salesman. Political consulting is made to look schmoozy and parasitic.

On the free speech issue, Wolf has a real cafeteria plan. She is critical of the old media and its attitude that it “owns” the news and the circulation of opinion, and she correctly notes that the old media feels rightly threatened by the “democratization” offered by the Internet. So, yes, she advocates personal blogs and websites ("Becoming the Media Yourself"), but, cautions, don’t expect too much of them. They work in conjunction with other efforts requiring more coordination with other people. The book gives some good advice on how to get op-eds published in newspapers (apparently many newspaper would actually like to expand beyond their list of syndicated columnists), and it lays out the expected procedures for contacting investigative reporters and getting onto television (interacting with “bookers”, for example) with the established corporate media outlets. There is a lot of valuable material here.

She puts individual speech in perspective with assembly and petition. There is a lot of material in the book on how the ability to demonstrate has been chipped away by the requirement for permits and following various rules. She takes the position that the capability to demonstrate in large numbers (and risk arrest and even violence, as well as organize boycotts) has been very critical to the success of most movements in our history (including the civil rights movement in the 1960s most of all). Now, it actually takes money to be able to demonstrate, which is certainly antithetical to democracy. (Imagine what could happen if the same constraints could be applied to individual Internet speech. It's been tried: look at the CDA and COPA.) Later in the book one of the contributors talks about demonstrating and getting arrested and how to handle the police. Even today, with all the power of the Internet, collective action is as important as individual action.

She also advocates an interesting proposal: "deliberative debate". Rather than talking at each other or past each others, speakers, on controversial issues, need to encounter one another in person and learn to walk in each other's shoes. But that begs a concept I have mentioned before, "The privilege of being listened to", where before someone speaks to a controversy, they ought to experience the same level of personal responsibility for others as those whom they criticize.

She also gets into areas like "conflict of interest" problems with speech. She cites one case of a VA nurse who was threatened with sedition charges for criticizing the American military. She fought it successfully, but she was told not to identify herself publicly as associated with the government.

Public employees do have legal rights in this area, and that is a subject on its own. But I had the experience in the 1990s of becoming public in opposing the military gay ban (“don’t ask don’t tell”) while I was working for a company that sold life insurance to military officers. I felt that this was an ethical conflict, and, after a corporate merger, relocated and transferred to a different section of the new company to avoid the conflict. What is the ethics of this sort of situation? We see this in the obscure debate about corporate blogging policies, which is spilling over into the even (legally and ethically) murkier area of “online reputation.”

The book makes its case for direct democracy (with a discussion of Switzerland) and the use of initiative and referendum. She doesn’t mention “ballot-ician” Bill Sizemore, who has become controversial by being hired (mostly by conservative and sometimes by libertarian interests) to introduce ballot initiatives in Oregon. But those of us who have been active in the gay rights area know how dangerous referendum can be. (Look at the battle over Proposition 8 in California, the “gay marriage” amendment, and this has happened in a number of other states, including Virginia in 2006. But also, remember the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978 which, had it carried, would have banned gay teachers; even governor Reagan opposed it.)

If one connects all the dots, one can imagine (right now, as a “thought experiment”, dangerous perhaps) a vigilante-type initiative in some state to force bloggers to carry insurance, because of the recent media stories about damaged “reputations” and a few horrific tragedies around the country because of cyberabuse. Imagine the consternation such a proposal would cause if on a referendum (let alone in a legislature or Congress). Just as with the automobile a century or so ago, new technology typically empowers the individual and ultimately can challenge old patterns of authority. There will always be those who seek to regulate the new freedoms, sometimes out of existence. Referendums can actually turn on democracy and freedom, and sometimes so can direct democracy. You need the checks and balances.

There is a technical section on amending the Constitution (expanded on how it is covered in high school government classes) near the end. A related book is by John Vile, "Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process", (Praeger, 1993).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Jay McGraw's Life Strategies for Dealing with Bullies


Author: Jay McGraw
Title: Jay McGraw's Life Strategies for Dealing with Bullies.
Publication: New York: Aladdin, 2008.
Description: Includes an Introduction by Dr. Phil McGraw. Illustrations by Steve Bjorkman; 172 pages, hardcover.

This book was introduced Tuesday Oct. 28 on the Dr. Phil show on cyberbullying. The book, by Dr. Phil’s son, is written in middle school language to help kids deal with being bullied, be able to communicate to their parents or teachers, and also addresses kids who feel the lack of self-control associated with bullying.

Actually, only one of the eleven chapters deals with cyberbullying. It does go into the bad things that happen. The most common is the placing of malicious gossip about other students on one’s profile or website, but it has also included creating fake websites, impersonating others, stealing passwords and spreading viruses. All of these activities can carry criminal penalties. But the law does not always make it easy for parents to go after kids who bully their kids online; school districts may believe they cannot act if it happens off campus. As I noted on my television reviews blog on Oct. 29, there is some effort in a few states to tighten the law. Eventually, there could be serious restrictions on who can have an account (minors at least), more downstream liability, and, I personally think, the requirement for insurance. This is a very serious problem.

But most of Jay’s book deals with the “real world” problem. He tries to explain the motives of the bully and mentions the examples set by parents at home. Boys are often taught that they have an obligation to prove that they are “stronger” than other boys and more capable than others in (given a presumably dangerous or unstable external world) potentially protecting other family members, and that kind of thinking can, in an immature mind, rationalize the practice. (It can also rationalize totalitarian ideologies, especially fascism. This sort of residue was very much impressed upon me when I was growing up in the 1950s.) In retrospect, I would add that when I was growing up neither I nor the school officials completely understood that this kind of behavior was morally wrong if, for no other reason, it represented unprovoked aggression, in the sense that a modern libertarian understands the concept. McGraw, however, talks about the desire to feel “special” or “important” (by striking at those who are “different” – actually ironic).

McGraw provides some model conduct codes and also some quiz exercises and encourages students to write private journals on their experience with this problem. Handwritten journals (not blogs) are common in many English classes.

It is important that all schools deal with perpetrators of this problem promptly and decisively with discipline. Their failure to act on incidents in many parts of the country indicates cultural bias that does not excuse inaction. Schools do need some leeway in the law to interpret malicious (and especially false) online posts by students (about students or even teachers) as potentially disruptive to security on campus, so that they have the authority to discipline students for online abuse, too.

Update: Dec. 8, 2008

The "Sunday Read" Magazine (essentially a "family section") of the Sunday Dec 8 Washington Times has an article by Barry Brown, "Attracting bullies: 'Aggressive behavior' and oversensitivity linked to victimization," link here. Brown feels that children who become targets of bullies are often hyper-sensitive and even in subtle ways aggressive themselves, making themselves unpopular even with some adults and teachers who see them as whiny or non-competitive. There are behavioral factors in the home that set up this feedback loop, but there is a bit of a moralistic tone to it.

Roland Warren has a column on the same page (15) of the magazine, "Dad must help deal with bullies," link here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

George Soros: The New Paradign for Financial Markets -- his take on the 2008 financial crisis ("reflexivity" v. "market fundamentalism")


Author:George Soros:
Title and Subtitle: "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means."
Publication: New York: Public Affairs, 2008, ISBN 1586486837, 162 pages, hardcover.

Hungarian born George Soros has been connected with Barack Obama’s campaign. He has for years argued for a pragmatic approach to world finance, including his idea of an “open society.” Earlier works had included “The Crisis of Global Capitalism” and “The Alchemy of Wealth.”

This short book is divided into two sections. Part One is “Perspective” and Part Two is “The Current Crisis and Beyond.”

The first part is a treatise in philosophy and epistemology. Soros talks about “knowledge” and “manipulation” (or “participation”) as psychological opposites. These are like yang in yin, or the polarities of Paul Rosenfels (in the April 2006 archive for this blog) and seem to relate to basic human personality. He also mentions “objectivity” and “subjectivity” with almost the same intent as Rosenfels. His purpose here is to show how human behaviors additively lead to the way markets behave. The connecting component is “reflexivity” which bears some relation Einstein’s “relativity” and to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. People make decisions based on moving targets. Truth is never absolute (he gets into the relationship between facts and truth) and knowledge is never certain, and manipulation (that is, the “masculine”) changes the way it looks to the observer. Hence, the concludes, economic markets can never reach equilibrium. They will always tend to stumble in various ways and need to be regulated in a reasonable fashion. He considers the “market fundamentalism” that started in the Reagan years and that was seemingly inspired by Ayn Rand as simply an incorrect characterization of how markets really work, and as unreliable as carrying “moral hazard” to the extremes that some libertarians view it in areas of “personal responsibility.”

For example, a writer like me may analyze my own life (manipulation) and say that this leads to certain articulable principles (knowledge). A politician will go in the other direction, and take these principles and turn them back to policy that affects other people’s activity. I think the notion is important because moral values themselves seem to have a pragmatic component. A great problem for society is how to get people to transcend immediate “self-interest” and provide for others, especially in situations that transcend choice or “personal responsibility” in the modern sense. Communism and fascism (both of which Soros has personal experience with, as he relates in his narrative) attempted to use inflexible ideology to rationalize the rules that would apply to people. (So does radical Islam.) Democracy (or “democratic capitalism”) must be more flexible. This means accepting some uncertainty or relativism (which Soros calls “reflexivity”).

The second half of the book restarts the ground he covers in his prologue, and gives a deep account of how the “bubble of bubbles” developed (building on the housing bubble) much as does the previously reviewed book by Smick (but more briefly). He wrote most of this after the mini-crash of August 2007, after which the stock market recovered and gave a false sense of security. He gives a detailed diary of his financial activities starting in January 2008, including the collapse of Bear Stearns. Curiously, he does not anticipate the sudden runup of commodities and oil in the summer of 2008, which would be the last part of the bubble.

He makes no bones about it: we need a Democratic president and Congress, and major regulatory reforms at all levels, including transparency of instruments, and various kinds of help for homeowners.

Friday, October 17, 2008

David Smick: "The World Is Curved", not Flat


Author: David M. Smick.
Title: The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy.
Publication: New York, Portfolio, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59184-218-7. Hardcover, 303 pages, indexed, Prologue and nine chapters.

We know from the title of the book that it sounds like the antithesis or answer to Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” and “Hot, Flat and Crowded” (this blog, Sept. 15, 2008). The white cover has a tempting tagline “The mortgage crisis was only the beginning.”

The author, according to the dust jacket, keeps a “lower profile” than many other financial world personalities (like Jim Cramer) but he published “International Economy” and is a partner and chairman of Johnson Smick International (his bio for that company is here). The book contains many accounts of dinners and meetings in cities all over the world, as if he were an observer of all of the world's financial dealings but was just barely off the radar screen of the media himself.

In fact, it seems, from the course of the book, that the mortgage crisis (as it started to unfold in 2007) is near the end of the process. That’s because Smick gives us detailed discussion of another of financial shocks in the past: the whole collectivist 1970s, the 1982 recession, the decade long deflation of Japan’s economy, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 1992 crisis in the British pound and the whole set of controversies the preceded the birth of the euro, the accounting crises in companies like Enron and WorldCom (about the time of 9/11) that led to Sarbanes-Oxley, and finally the current crisis.

Amazon says that this book was published on Sept. 4, 2008. The narrative does summarize the Bear Stearns collapse on St. Patrick’s Day this year, but what’s amazing is that the book was on the streets even before the government “nationalized” (if that’s an apt verb) Fannie and Freddie, almost two weeks before the Lehman Brothers and AIG collapse, based on the credit default swaps market being shorted and then called in. Yet the book seamlessly explains how it was about to happen. He explains the motive (based on Japan's 1990 collapse) for the Fed to lower interest rates after 9/11, and how that policy could lead to a housing bubble, and then other bubbles. He traces the process of securitization of loans, of the concept of "riskless risk" that could only implode, and the disconnect between lenders and borrowers inherent in the new financial instruments. Anyone who read this book right after it came out probably could have just waited for the next collapse at any time. In fact, Smick explains that the credit markets were contracting seriously in 2007, and in August 2007 the “financial 9/11” that finally unraveled on Sept. 15 really almost happened thirteen months earlier.

Of course, the “flat world” concept (not exactly “flatland” of science fiction) refers to globalization, and Smick promotes the idea that globalization (if not always equivalent to greed) is good. In fact, the “Reagan-Clinton” revolution that took us out of the 70s gas lines was a studied approach to free trade. At the same time, we gradually rewarded entrepreneurialship and even asymmetry (most of all with the Internet). Along these lines, Smick discusses China’s resistance to full political freedom – particularly online – as potentially keeping it stuck in some sort of Confucian (and post-Communist) social and political value system that could still undo all of China’s economic gains some day. Smick also discusses “class warfare,” as favored by politicians, especially on the Left (Smick says he started out as a Democrat but, well …) . The rich really don’t carry the economies of the world, and it’s important to reward initiative and hard work for the individual person in the middle. He sees class struggles and perhaps the way “family values” are debated as a retreat from a faith in personal initiative.

But this gets us back to why the world (like the planet itself) is curved, into a kind of non-Euclidean geometry. On p. 214 he writes “Today the world is curved precisely because the political and financial market worlds don’t understand each other.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Cory Doctorow: "Content": a disturbing view of the Internet-digital-world's future (copyright infringement phobia could ruin it for everybody)


Author: Cory Doctorow.
Title: "Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future". The “C” in Content is printed as a copyright symbol (©).
Publication: San Francisco, Tachyon, 2008. ISBN 1-892391-81-3. 212 pages, paper, 25 essays. There is a Foreword by John Perry Barlow.

Well, the first character of the title tells you something about the book, which is a collection of about thirty short essays (not numbered as chapters). Each essay is like a blog entry, and some were speeches. This Canadian author is quite an expert on US intellectual property law. And he practices what he preaches, walks his own walk. He offers the book, inexpensive in paperback, for free with a Creative Commons license here. He believes that artists fare best if the price their work flexibly, according to what their audience is willing to pay, and that offering free content is a perfectly legitimate strategy for being found and read, without necessarily giving up rights later.

Most of the essays deal in one way or another (often with humorous satirical analogies, some set up with pseudo-poetry) with all the convolutions and contradictions inherent in the way copyright law is applied to and enforced with respect to digital media (DRM or “digital rights management”) and the Internet. The general impression is that the draconian steps inconsistently applied by copyright owners (or usually their representative associations like the RIAA and MPAA) are more about protecting turf (often as laid out by unions and guilds) than actual financial profitability. There is the repeated problem that new technology upends the business model upon which older technology is based. Older companies will first try to protect their old-fashioned practices and markets with the legal system, often to their own financial detriment, before jumping on the bandwagon.

He discusses some of the problems that occurred a few centuries ago with the printing press and Bibles, and mentions the interesting dilemma posed by the invention of the piano roll. Music publishers and concert halls feared that piano roll “recordings” would destroy their businesses; in fact the opposite was true. (Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most prolific users of the piano roll.)

He also makes an effective argument that many of the convolutions of DRM defeat a generally accepted principle of copyright: first sale. Generally, when someone buys a copy (an “instance”) of a work (think of a work as a “class” in the object-oriented world) he or she is free to use that instance anywhere with any device capable of rendering it. (There are well-known limitations, such as charging admission for playing to others.) But DVD’s are often unplayable on machines outside the country of purchase, and it is often illegal to circumvent the technology that makes them unplayable.

But the most serious issue arises in the essays in the middle part of the book, such as one called “How Do You Protect Artists?” That is, downstream liability for copyright infringement of users of a site or service. The Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is controversial enough, leading ISPs or other publishing services to yank material upon frivolous complaints (although the volume of such incidents is surely small compared to the “amateur” content on the Internet as a whole). Congress had intended the “Safe Harbor” (in 1998) to be an important compromise between legitimate interests of amateurs and the “establishment” as Doctorow’s discussion shows. But now we have the Viacom v. Youtube lawsuit, launched in March 2007, which claims that Youtube’s business model is predicated on encouraging copyright infringement (following the Supreme Court’s logic in MGM v. Grokster in 2005). Doctorow summarizes the situation by maintaining that Viacom wants Youtube to pre-screen all videos before posting. I do recall that Viacom has claimed in court papers that somehow YouTube is not eligible for Safe Harbor. There are also questions about why “private” or whitelisted videos were subject to the litigation. I’m not sure how slippery the slope is (that sounds like a “real physics”-calculus problem for AP high school kids, doesn’t it!) but the implication of an unfavorable outcome to Viacom could be that ISP’s and publishing services (Blogger included) would have to pre-approve everything that is published with legal due diligence. That would shut down not only free blogging services and social networking sites (unthinkable!) but even “conventional” shared hosting, as has been available to amateurs since about 1996, as well. The danger is that a jury, particularly, might have trouble grasping this – just the way the public had trouble seeing the Wall Street financial crisis coming and understanding the difference between the credit markets and the stock market. Presumably Congress understood this, sort of, in 1998 (but they perhaps didn’t understand it when they passed COPA, which has been struck down but is still on appeal). It’s possible to imagine some workouts. Maybe corporate filmmakers put digital watermarks on their videos that Youtube could check for during the upload as an unobtrusive and efficient pre-check. Maybe text content could be pre-checked with a “turnitin.com” like technique known for term papers – but his would lead to false positives well known with the spam blog problem. It seems to me, at least, that there is reason to wonder if the current Internet business models, predicated on advertising, can last forever given the current economic shocks and a number of other “existential” traps lurking in the woodwork. So far, the Viacom case (complaint seems to be “progressing” only very slowly (18 months after its filing). I wrote about this on July 4, 2008 on my main blog here, about a court order to turn over visitor activity logs about YouTube.

Doctorow offers other interesting perspectives on the attempts to control bad behavior on the Internet. AOL, he says, could easily contain spam email if it didn’t open up email to non-members, which it had to as a business practicality very early in its life. He compares the world of social networking (especially Facebook) to earlier paradigms for AOL (and perhaps its clownish competitor in the early 90s, Prodigy) and suggests that it tries to establish a kind of Machiavellian control on how people relate online and even in the real world. Far from opening up the Internet, social networking sites seem to be trying to control it. There are even sites that try to get employers to sign on to monitor and control the “online reputations”, professionally at least, of their associates.

Doctorow’s anecdote about Napster is interesting. He traces how the packaging of music has changed with technology, from old 78’s to 2-sided LP’s with designed cover jackets, to CD’s and finally to digital downloads, and that companies repeatedly have trouble producing what consumers, especially younger ones, really want and would pay a fair market price for.

He also discusses the issue of copyright and photos, and notes that some museums (especially in Britain and in Europe) do not allow photography out of fear that photographs would deter paying visitors, which he thinks is a silly idea.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jennifer Roback Morse rewrites "Love & Economics": is the "laissez-faire family" an oxymoron?


Author: Jennifer Roback Morse
Title: "Love & Economics: Why It Takes a Family to Raise a Village".
Publication: San Marcos CA, Ruth Institute, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9816059-1-3.
Description: 306 pages, paper, endnotes but not index. 4 Parts. 12 Chapters, Introduction and Conclusion.

This book is a rewrite of an earlier book that had appeared in 2001, titled “Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work,” then published by Spence in Dallas. The new version appears in “collegiate” and “streetfighter” editions. This is a review of the “collegiate” version and I’m not sure as to how they are different. The book's subtitle is an obvious reference to Hillary Clinton's famous book "It Takes a Village" (1996, reissued in 2006 in an anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster.

I can relate to this book on two or three different levels. For most of its text, Morse is describing how the nuclear family should work, how parents need to be connected in love, recognized by society as their marriage, and how children, born helpless and needy until they become productive adults themselves, fare best in a traditional family. Ideally, she maintains, the father accepts the responsibility to protect and provide for the mother and children, and the mother stays home enough (and so does the father, to some extent) to raise the children and teach the children the socialization that it takes to function in a free society.

There’s something so fundamental about this, that goes beyond words. If you’ve ever watched a lioness train her cubs to hunt in a nature film, you see how motherhood underlies the continuity of a species at a certain level. Human civilization can grow and develop because it adds fatherhood and adds a social structure (the family) to pass its values down through generations.

One can debate her criticism of alternative arrangements that parents make, for example, using day care or nannies, and of her questioning the political progress in gender equality. She calls the modern “laissez-faire family” as the “problem that has no name.”

She has, however, described how unconditional and committed love should work within a marriage, and why children need to see this in their parents. No one can really question the soundness of these central ideas. She never mentions same-sex marriage or homosexuality per se, but some of her ideas about marriage really do apply to same-sex couples. She talks about love and power, as a balance between competing virtues that people bring to a marriage. She is not, however, willing to admit that this is not as dependent on gender as most people think. That gets into the “polarities” and the ideas of Paul Rosenfels, whom I discussed in this blog in April 2006.

I say that I have to discuss the book in levels, because throughout the book she is relating her ideas about marital love to her social and political philosophy, which she still says is libertarian. As the book title says, a free market society with minimal government cannot prosper without strong families transmitting care among generations.

Even as we have seen in the recent financial crisis, one of the most important requirements of a free society is a certain amount of trust among its citizens. People are not born with this; they learn self-control and proper boundaries and respect for others from parents. Morse discusses "The Prisoner's Dilemma" as a paradigm to show how people need to learn to perceive self-interest in terms of committed, long term relationships. That paradigm does really explain a lot of problems on Wall Street as well as it does in intimate relationships.

Early in the book, she discusses attachment disorder, which appears in children, as in overseas orphanages, who do not have proper attention from parents. Such children grow into adulthood with a very short-term sense of “rational” self-interest, focused on quick gratification. They often do not have respect for law and become sociopathic. However, judging from other characterizations (as on Dr. Phil) the term might be used for people who grow up without the normal facility to share feelings and emotions, but who are able to adapt to society by themselves and make a living within society’s norms of lawful and ethical behavior applied globally. Morse considers Attachment Disorder to be important enough to provide a special bibliography for it. I have to come back to that later.

At various places in the book, she questions the way we perceive the libertarian idea of personal autonomy or sovereignty. She says that most libertarians realize that pure “atomistic autonomy” is not possible, because all are dependent on other people, starting with our parents, to exist. In fact, absolute individual sovereignty could lead to a kind of social Darwinism that could eventually invite in totalitarianism again (that’s a good sci-fi theme). Indeed, arguing for libertarian policies in economics, government and foreign affairs does not mean we can advocate change in the essential nature of human social organization through the family, especially the raising of children. She points out that there is a cost to personal autonomy and "pride" when both giving and receiving love, particularly when it seems to be on someone else's terms (and particularly, I think, when expected outside of a marriage among members of an extended family).

She does make some important distinctions in our conceptual terminology. Marriage should not be regarded as a “contract” they way a home purchase is; it is rather a committed partnership. And we should accept that, while many of our adult relationships are chosen (a spouse, most of all), not all are. By a kind of negation of the “axiom of choice” in mathematics, we cannot choose are parents. And we cannot chose our other relatives, especially parents and siblings, and sometimes we will be expected to show some responsibility for them. These relationships are not “coerced” but they are not “chosen” either. They are simply a given, rather like a hypothesis for a math problem. There is a bit of Philosophy 101 in all this. She has a brief passage arguing against the folly that one can "divorce one's parents."

She also discusses the concepts of “risk” and “uncertainty”. When parents have a child, they have no control of which set of their own genes the child will get. Any family could give birth to a child with special needs, beyond the best attempts of any medicine; or any family could give birth to the next Da Vinci. (Or the child could be both.) “Risk” is a statistical concept that can be modeled with actuarial concepts, the domain of insurance companies. “Uncertainty” cannot, and simply leans on trust, and on the idea that a social order will get its members to accept and share uncertainty in the family unit. But the acceptance of "uncertainty" ties in (unfavorably) to libertarian ideas of "rational self-interest." Imagine a world where all adults decide that having children is "irrational" because they could bear the sole risk of raising a child with a disability, which cannot be predicted completely. One could indeed wind up with the apocalypse of the film "Children of Men."

The central problem, from my perspective at least, is that some people go their own way in life (like me) without forming their own families. Nevertheless, their willing participation can be important to the family units that they came from.

Let me deal with one excursion here, social security. Morse provides a discussion that says that social security has relieved adult children of responsibility for their parents, and has even encouraged elderly people to move into their own communities, often in the Sun Belt, breaking up extended families to pass down intergenerational values. She’s getting at something important, but I don’t think her analysis is correct. Social security is funded largely by a worker’s own contributions, and also provides spousal benefits (a big boon for traditional marriage in any book). If social security were replaced by a pre-tax privatized plan, essentially if could function the same way, as an annuity for oneself and spouse based on one’s own lifetime work record and earnings. It would be intended to help the elderly remain solvent without their kids. However Medicare is essentially a single payer system to take care of the major part of the senior’s medical care, but families are left on their own (or Medicaid) for long term care. This gets into the subject of filial responsibility laws which I have discussed in detail elsewhere on these blogs.

Let’s get back to her main train of thought. She mentions several times the importance of being willing to love other people when they are less than perfect. It’s not always clear if she is talking just about the husband and wife in a marriage, where the well being of the children is at stake. She mentions that some people are preoccupied with their own plans and agenda in lives (sometimes with a lot of fantasy investment) and have very little interest in permanent co-dependence with others. That’s true. It actually happens a lot in marriages (and contributes to divorce) But what is more significant to me, at least, is that many times such people don’t marry and have kids at all. They decide it is too expensive or requires allowing other people to make unwelcome intrusions into their emotional space. Sexual orientation may figure into this, but it would complicate the discussion here within the scope of the book review. So might medical issues, such as milder developmental “disorders” like Aspergers, or personality “disorders” like schizoid, that seem related to Attachment Disorder. But such persons do not become criminal or destructive; they simply want to manage their own space and live their own way.

The book leaves the impression that people, even those who do not marry and have their own children, should regard themselves as parts of a family, governed by the marital sexual commitment of the parents, than as competing individuals in a global society. It is common for unmarried or childless people to discover that they are expected to care for elderly parents (as noted in the previous book review) and sometimes to be expected to raise siblings’ children after family tragedies (as in more than one Hollywood film). In some cases, single adults might be expected to make huge changes in their own lives and priorities because of problems that others in the family had or even caused. Meeting such an expectation (and sometimes proving that one can “head” a “pseudo-family”) might be “easier” for an adult who had, after all, entered the committed intimate life of marriage and raised his own kids earlier; otherwise he (or she) is left, relative to the values of the modern world, in the (potentially shameful) position of someone who could not compete well enough to have his own family and must subordinate himself to the sexual commitments of others. This kind of situation is not often formally discussed, so indeed it becomes part of Morse’s “problem with no name”. I’d love to see Dr. Phil and Oprah willing to deal with this more often, although Dr. Phil recently had a program where a young man had to ponder giving up an athletic career to be tested to give up a kidney to a brother. This sort of thing does happen.

It seems that if one is going to say this in a book in a “play footsy under the table” fashion, one should have a separate chapter and deal specifically on what should be expected of unmarried people. Go ahead and blurt it out and take the criticism for being politically incorrect if necessary. Even from the vantage point of the “ethics” of “radical individualism” known to libertarians (call it “karma”), “singletons” were helpless once as babies (after all, as she says, everyone was – that’s a given) and therefore putatively owe some caregiving to others (and some "uncertainty sharing") even if never committed themselves to having their own children.

Morse spends almost no space on discussing specific family policies. Specifically, she avoids rehearsing all the usual conservative arguments against gay marriage. She is espousing libertarianism, but that it must be founded on a spontaneous order in which personal interactions involving the family come about on a voluntary basis, where people keep their marital promises but also where people on the fringe of the conventional world of marriage understand that they must be receptive to other people, too, sometimes on terms other than their own. But, in the book by Polikoff that I reviewed previously, that’s precisely a reason why public policy needs to recognize caregiving and co-dependency arrangements other than marriage, so that people can afford to step up to them. Morse seems to imply that “marriage culture”, if implemented consistently enough (especially on outliers like me) would take care of caregaiving without inviting intervention by government.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nancy D. Polikoff: "Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage": a pragmatic argument for fairness

Author: Nancy D. Polikoff.
Ttile: "Beyond (Straight and Gay)Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law".
Publication: Boston, Beacon Press, 2008. 259 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8070-4432-2.
Description: Hardcover, 259 pages, 11 Chapters and a conclusion.

American University law professor Nancy D. Polikoff has written a fairly brief but compelling argument for modifying family law so that it recognizes dependency fairly, whether in or outside of legally recognized marriage.

The “obvious” customers for her concerns sounds like LGBT people, but, not necessarily, she argues. Children of single parents or of non-legally married parents need to be treated equally in all areas of law, as do other dependents, especially, given today’s demographics, elderly parents. Yet laws often get in the way, particularly some recent state laws and constitutional amendments (like Marshall-Newman in Virginia) that would prohibit arrangements for non-married couples that “simulate” marriage (civil union benefits).

She does trace the history of the “cultural wars” relative to the gay rights movement, with respect to marriage, through the civil union and gay marriage debates that developed in the 1990s (first with Hawaii and Vermont) and then led to today’s situation, as with Massachusetts and California (where there is a referendum the November 2008 election).

She does remind us that marriage used to be regarded as society’s tool to regulate sexual expression, both in and outside of marriage. She moves on to a synoptic discussion of the political opportunism on the part of the religious right, trying to blame homosexuals and the unmarried for the problems today. She doesn’t connect quite all the dots of conservative arguments here, but it’s clear that the cultural attachment to marriage has a lot to do with emotional fidelity and emotion. “Special rights” for married people (and a belief that they have a right to monopolize sexuality) certainly hurt those adults who don’t have heterosexual intercourse with openness to their own procreation.

She understands the importance of gay marriage as an “equality concept” given that society favors marriage, but it is the fact that marriage is so privileged that is the source of unfairness, particularly to dependents in “non-conventional” families. By keeping marriage as a largely private and religious matter, upon which relatively little depends, one sidesteps all the potential arguments about extending marriage (as with polygamy).

The most remarkable passages in her book concern the idea of dependency (the “caretaker-dependent dyad”). On p 122 (in a chapter called “Valuing All Families”) she refers to Martha Albertson Fineman’s book “The Newtered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies” (published by Rutledge in 1995) and the characterization of “inevitable” vs. “derivative” dependency. “Inevitable” dependents comprise children and often the elderly and disabled. “Derivative” dependents comprise those who care for the inevitable dependents. Although the most obvious example is parents, people often care for dependents whom they did not create (including elderly parents and sometimes siblings). “’We all lead subsidized lives’, she quotes Fineman as saying, adding that personal autonomy is a myth creating by hiding dependencies in the economy and public policy. Society should compensate derivative dependents, who often share caregiving duties inequitably, rather than leave them privatized in the family. One can debate this suggestion: after all, Medicare does pay for a lot of elderly Medicare, but not for nursing home care (generally).

Later, on p 151, she speculated “A gay man with no partner or children may be the one among his adult siblings best suited to move in with, support, and care for an aging parent and grandparent.” Notice: the gay man in this situation is expected to give up his own sovereignty to meet the needs of someone else when he did not do anything to cause the need (unlike the case of having children). Perhaps he has to change careers, or become involved in groupthink-style political causes (to benefit the dependent) that he personally would not have supported. Such a scenario has profound moral implications, but it happens all the time. The naughty word for this is “family slave” but in the past, unmarried adults (especially women) were expected to do just that: stay home and look after the parents. She doesn't mention that 28 states have filial responsibility laws, which may become legally significant to adult children as their parents live longer but may become dependent.

That gives a clue to what the religious right wants: to socialize as many people as possible to be able to function as married adults raising children and caring for others (including the elderly) in their own families. Marriage, they say, has to be emotionally rewarding enough (including, in a lot of cases, a lot of pampering) to keep couples together so that they “voluntarily” provide all the intergenerational services that society needs. She mentions the old-fashioned “family wage”, upon which social policy (which discriminated against female workers) used to be based, but social conservatives like Allan C. Carlson, who in a 1988 book “Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis” (Transaction Books) wrote that the family wage would be necessary to counter the “logical consequences of radical individualism” (p 111). It isn’t hard to imagine that the family wage supports a patriarchal family, emotionally important to many men to remain faithful.

She also discusses the evolution of our health care system as something that came out of wage and price controls during WWII, analyzes the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act as being more rational in whom it covers than marriage law, and supports some paid leave, such as the proposed Health Families Act of 2007 (S 1085, govtrack reference here.

Polikoff does go into detail about the way different states handle issues like wills (including challenges from blood relative -- it's interesting how blood relationships are supposedly to get for people what they can't take care of themselves even as adults), dying intestate, hospital visitation, workman's compensation, and particularly social security, where she notes that the social security system has all people supporting the spousal benefits of high income one-earner families.

A good book for comparison might be Elinor Burkett’s “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless” back in 2000 (Free Press). Burkett admits that some people view the childless or single as “cheating the system.”