Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cory Doctorow: "How to Destroy the Book": Hint: DRM

The Varsity” has an edition of a speech by Cory Doctorow, as transcribed by Jade Colbert, made Nov. 13 at the National Reading Summit (link) called “How to Destroy the Book”, with link here.

The speaker goes back to the concept of owning a copy of a book (or an “instance” of a book in Object Oriented Programming Jargon – I once got an email from a coworker about my 1997 book titled “my book” when he meant “my instance of your book”).

Yes, in the physical world, once you own the “instance”, you can lend the instance to others (as libraries do) or make physical copies for your own use, probably (although not with library books, it copying meant you would never buy a book you would normally have to pay for). (You couldn’t easily copy whole books at Kinkos, or employees wouldn’t do it). But digital rights management (DRM) has so complicated the picture, making the “purchaser” of an e-book a “licensee” in some cases (it gets complicated, as the essay explains).

I remember back in the 1960s a friend and I would tape each other’s records, sometimes: we thought that we both bought so many classical record original copies (usually at deeply discounted sale prices) that we were fair to the music industry. Taping onto a cassette for private use made some sense, because in the old days records would wear out. CD’s changed that (although CD’s might not store forever, after all).

Doctorow also talks about the international treaty negotiations in South Korea and concerns over expanding downstream liability. YouTube and Blogger, for example, could never possibly preclear every posting or video posted by amateurs. Many people don’t get this (or maybe they do).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bruce Bartlett's "The New American Economy": the end of Reaganomics?

Author: Bruce Bartlett
Title: "The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward"
Publication: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2009, ISBN 978-0-61587-8, 266 pages, hardcover

In his Introduction, Bartlett relates how he got fired from his job in a conservative think tank for writing a book, published by Doubleday in 2006, “Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy”.

Bartlett gives a lot of historical technical explanations of both Keynesian economics, where government spending is sometimes necessary to dig an economy of the rut (as with TARP and all the Obama economic stimulus), supply side economics (Reagan), and various systems around the world, such as progressive consumption taxes, and VAT’s (value added taxes), popular in Europe, which he thinks the US needs to consider seriously now as a way of filling in its fiscal hole. He gives a lot of detailed explanations as to what happened in the Great Depression, Laffer Curve, the New Deal, the 50s and 60s, both deflation and inflation, the stagflation of the 70s, Reagan’s “morning” with the deficits (and Reagan actually increased some taxes!), Clinton’s fiscal conservatism, and George W. Bush’s general recklessness. Yes, to me, Bartlett sounds like a Democrat now, maybe even a liberal. He discounts the idea of “starving the beast”.

Particularly disturbing is his analysis of Social Security and Medicare, near the end of the book. Although Social Security is structured to look like an annuity (based largely on what a worker and/or his or her legal spouse earned while working), it really is much more of a “welfare program” for the elderly (regardless of need) than many people realize, partly because of the way it started during the FDR years. Libertarians (or libertarian conservatives) like to propose solving these problems with totally privatized pre-tax retirement and health savings accounts, with the idea that people should take care of themselves and not depend on either government or their adult kids. Of course, it’s difficult to switch to this system partly because of the welfare component and because, (to greatly oversimplify here), at an individual level “life is not fair.”

From a societal viewpoint, social conservatives have a point when they say that entitlement programs help break up families and when they say that social contracts need to be redesigned so that they give families more authority in mandating responsibility among their own adult members, especially those who do not have their own children (the “demographic winter” argument, which Bartlett does not get into in this book, but which seems to follow logically from the concerns that he does raise – he does mention a proposal that consumption taxes could help fund not only Medicare but even long term care insurance, as is being tried in some countries like Germany and Japan). The only way out of this (and the authoritarianism that it could invite) is to carefully analyze what it takes for adults to really be able to take care of themselves. Along these aims, it is not necessarily wrong to believe that some public goods (even health care and some aspects of public transportation, as in Europe) can be funded efficiently with consumption taxes, and it is possible to design consumption taxes so they are not regressive.

Bartlett also raises some red-flag warnings about how much of our debt is held overseas by investors in countries like China, and admits that by normal standards of creditworthiness, the U.S. seems to rank very low now, having squandered the savings built up in the Clinton years.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The End of the World as We "Knew" It

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
Back in 2001, after coming home from seeing the first “Lord of the Rings” film, I got an unexpected email from an acquaintance who asked me to take down any reference to him in a particular posting on my website. It was a small matter. But in the ensuing conversation, he mentioned that before he dates anyone, he “googles” their name.

That was fully three years before social networking sites had gone full boil. So, of course, you can guess that the title of this posting refers to the new book by Ken Auletta, “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It”, from Penguin Press (New York, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-235-3), 384 pages, hardcover, endnotes. Call it “life as we knew it” – past tense.

It came as a surprise to me that the “Company” did not come into legal existence until the fall of 1998. In fact, Congress had already passed COPA, and soon I would become a plaintiff (sponsored by EFF). I would be asked to supply page view counts, and one thing I discovered is that they increased very rapidly starting in late 1998, as I got indexed into what would become the largest and most popular search engine.

Auletta spends a lot of the early part on the book on the idea of revolutionary innovation, of being the next teenager in a garage to come up with something to tear down whole industries. Page and Brin were already out of grad school, so the birth of The Company is not quite so shocking (Auletta covers the details), but the concept of “copying down” all the links on the Internet as it was in the mid 1990s was revolutionary, but perhaps no more so than other things going on (such as Shawn Fanning’s single-handed invention of Napster in the late 90s). There were other search engines, but Page, Brin and others brought their mathematical bent to develop a way to model “the wisdom of the masses”, coming up with a search technique that would lend itself to monetization, and a revolution more in the concept of how to run the whole world of advertising than anuthi

While tracing the “childhood” and “adolescence” of The Company, Auletta analyzes the “existential threats” to established media industries pretty thoroughly.

Particularly interesting is the guarded reaction of the book publishing industry, and of established authors, not only to the book project, but to the whole concept that writers expect their work to be found online and “scoped” rather than read leisurely (or studied carefully) after being paid for. The problem gets complex: some book publishers offer new authors “print on demand”, and “vanity publishing”, to develop a presence in the limelight, becomes much enabled.

But that possibility links up with concerns that Auletta raises at the very end, about the prospect for stricter government regulation, especially overseas, as many cultures consider “the community” more important than “the individual.” For example, one could then posit the moral question: if one stakes a position in the limelight, should one first have to be accountable for and to others? That can turn the whole paradigm of “personal responsibility” (for which so much of the Internet, where consequences occur retrospectively) upside down, perhaps Confucian style. (To get a rein on individual vanity and encourage social connectedness LDS or Amish style, one could suggest that an online book be allowed to remain available only if it does make reportable income!)

Auletta does mention the problem of online reputation, which boils down to the fact that anyone can publish anything and the whole world will find it quickly, especially when the material is made available to search engines. But the world of social networking makes the question more complicated: not only just with the issue of privacy controls (and trust in major companies), but with the whole purpose of being online: it’s socializing, it’s publishing, it’s everything. Auletta tangentially gives short histories of Myspace and Facebook, too.

There is something about “The Company” that regards itself as a super-utility, building on the content of users. Older media companies were predicated not only on the notion that “content is king”, but that content goes through supervision and review before it is “published”. (Auletta provides a lot of constructive criticism of the traditional newspaper business.) That it became permissible to dismiss the oversight component may seem like the fortune of history now, although much of it is embedded in Section 230 and in the DMCA safe harbor, a concept that the author doesn’t get into. We should not take things for granted so easily.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Traditional publishers cling to old business models when offering established authors e-book deals

Traditional, old-economy book publishers are trying to defend old business models as they deal with the e-book market, and established authors (and their estates) find that the publishers seem to be low-balling them on royalties for e-book reprints, according to a story by Motoko Rich in the Dec. 13 New York Times, “Plot twist for familiar works: who owns the e-book rights?”, link here.

Yet in some cases the book publishers, like Random House, claim the exclusive right to continue to represent certain authors or their estates.

In the long run, this could make bankable new authors less willing to deal with traditional publishers, some agents warn, even though agenting and book publishing has become a very numbers-driven business that tends to weed out midlist authors.

I’m reminded of a 2001 book by Donald Maass, “Writing the Breakout Novel: Inside Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level” (Writer’s Digest, 0-89879-995-3). The most important think for a novelist’s career was to stay on that top tier.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Robert Preston's "The Hot Zone": a relic from a 1995 book fair

It isn’t real often that I pick out older books to talk about on this blog, but in the drawdown period from H1N1, Robert Preston’s 1994 book “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story” from Random House (ISBN 0-679-43094-6) makes a curious subject matter. I bought it at a book fair for about $1 at a book fair at work in the cafeteria in 1995.

Of course, we know that it is like a “non-fiction” novel about the Marburg and even deadlier Ebola virus. The latter chapters account for an incident where a supposedly airborne form of Ebola almost escaped from an Army conveyance into Reston, VA in 1987. Generally these viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF)’s of the filovirus family are transmissible only through “body fluids” but the infections are much more transmissible than HIV in practice.

But the book is written in intriguing style, starting with a cave expedition (in the Kitum Cave) near Kenya’s Mount Elgon, with a local whose disease will start with a bizarre headache.

Here is Stanford University's link on Ebola Reston (link).

A massive companion volume is Laurie Garrett, "Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance" (1994, Penguin, ISBN 0140250913). This volume gives graphic accounts of Lassa fever, Marburg, Ebola --and, of course, HIV. The blow-by-blow account of an explorer who recovered from the liquefying effects of Ebola but developed universal alopecia in the process is particularly striking.

The germs in the natural world are probably a greater practical threat than anything man can make up in a lab. As for a vaccine on H5N1, we’d better get cooking.

Preston's book would make a great movie. I don't think it's been done.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Does "The Book Settlement" encourage indirect book censorship?

Fred Van Lohmann has an interesting critique of the Google Books settlement, dated December 3, 2009, link here. He makes a point that makes one think of some of the arguments in the network neutrality debate: the “master company” could have subconscious motives to engage in censorship of what it makes available, with little accountability.

EFF makes the point that the copyright owner of a book is not always the author. As with Howard Hughes, a copyright can be purchased and then the book suppressed; the article gives other examples (and I recall an issue with J.D. Salinger’s (The Catcher in the Rye) works. Foreign governments could apply pressure to suppress certain books.

There is also a question as to whether the contents of a book could be altered, if a “rightsholder” wanted it to be changed, in keeping with the issue noted above. And the public might never be told.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Al Gore: "Our Choice", on climate change, and maybe demographics

Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth II” comes as a grandiose paperback book “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis”, published this fall (2009) by Modale/Melcher Media, with ISBN 978-1-59486-734-7, 414 pages, paper. The book is rather like a film (or film strip, as we called them in grade school in the 50s), with an enormous number of high quality photographs and engineering diagrams. On the back page, Al Gore discusses the minimal carbon footprint in publishing and printing the book.

The most challenging part of the book is the last, the last five of the eighteen chapters, where Mr. Gore examines the social, political, and most of all psychological impediments to adjusting to climate change. Human beings are unique among animals in being able to pass a culture on to the future, but the time scale of climate change is so great as to test even our advantage with “Kultur”. There is a problem with the way our “free markets” work, emphasizing short term profits and rewards. And there is the most subtle problem of all: with the advance of hyper-individualism, almost ironically as a logical consequence of the use of reason, the need for man to act again as a social, even conjugal being, caring more about the future of his line than about himself, comes into play as an issue of social “sustainability.” But he also is critical of the way big special interest (even ExxonMobil) manipulate the media to distort the science of the problem and hide the truth; in his view, the democratizing influence of the Internet ought to be a good thing.

The earlier chapters of the book go into great scientific detail about how greenhouse gasses work, and then as to how all the renewable energy technologies stack up. In that sense, the book would make good subject matter for an AP Chemistry book report assignment. Mr. Gore gives detailed discussions of the biofuels controversy, pointing the way toward advances; later the describes the smart grid (much as did Thomas Friedman in 2007 with Thomas L. Friedman: “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardbound, 438 pages, indexed, ISBN 0-374-16685-4. Mr. Gore offers many other interesting details, such as the “Kneeling Curve” (that ought to impress one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s roles as much as “pie charts”), a graphic picture of mountaintop removal strip mining for coal, and a positive discussion of the future of nuclear power – except that global warming could undermine that by undermining the water supply for the plants.

Mr. Gore offers a balanced proposal on population. He acknowledges that some more affluent populations are not replacing themselves and dependent on more fecund immigrant minorities (that could lead to political instability, particularly in Europe – the supposed “demographic winter” problem described by Phillip Longman [“The Empty Cradle”] and others), the thinks that stable population depends on the proper empowerment of women (p 228), including the belief that their children will survive. An aging population is not a “problem” if people can work longer, the economy supports their employment, and if medicine and lifestyle changes keep the elderly out of disability. That seems a bit optimistic. Mr. Gore mentions the western style safety net to care for the elderly, as if to trivialize it, and then talks about cultural traditions in poorer societies (without the safety net) that encourage large families, partly to have children to care for parents. But the severity of the demographic problem in the West is rapidly increasing, and it’s surprising that Mr. Gore doesn’t acknowledge that, given the health care and Medicare debate.

Al Gore's blog entry for the book is here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NatGeo December 2009 Issue warns us about the Carbon Bathtub, in same issue that it looks at extrasolar planets

The December 2009 issue of National Geographic is particularly important as to “planetary futures”.

The cover asks “Are we alone?” with the caption “searching the heavens for another Earth” and has a picture of Gliese 581 e, a planet about twice the mass of Earth (probably another Venus) around a small M star 20 light years away. In fact, 581 d, another planet, may have water. The whole solar system reminds one of the one in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”.

The article, by Timothy Ferris, features a pull-out diagram of the Milky Way, with a little square showing a 400 light year neighborhood of our Earth. This fans out into the Kepler Search Arm running out to about 1800 light years. And we’re on a supplementary spiral arm, halfway out from the center of a galaxy measuring 100000 light years across, with plenty of astrophysical. Another diagram shows a 2-D blown to 3-D simulation of the immediate neighborhood. Most inhabitable planets are likely to be around M stars, and may face the same side of their sun all the time.

But the most important article may be “The Big Idea” on p 26, “The Carbon Bathtub.” The article notes the extremely long time that excess carbon takes to “drain” from the atmosphere. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions; if we don’t decrease by 80%, our CO-2 level will reach 450 ppm by 2050. The article discusses the book “The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate (Science Essentials)” by David Archer, from the Princeton University Press, 978-0691136547.

The article also talks about a “cognitive flaw” in human thinking”, which shows up in the way people manage debt (credit cards and mortgage), not seeing the “derivatives” of “asset” accumulation and depletion, whether physical or monetary. This is similar to moral considerations of personal behavior related to “sustainability.”

Perhaps Venus had a civilization a billion years ago and ran into tragedy, leading to some kind of runaway CO-2 apocalypse. Perhaps greenhouse gas ovens are rather common around the Galaxy. Take heed.

A short piece by Melody Kramer on the "Health page" called "Fighting the Flu" makes the case for enforced social distancing as a way of controlling H1N1 if vaccines prove inadequate.

The link for the “December Issue” of NatGeo is this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rebecca Hagelin: "Protecting Your Family In a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad"

Rebecca Hagelin writes a regular column about “family values” in The Washington Times, and a recent column questioned why we aren’t committed to edifying traditional marriage and also recommended her book “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family,” from Regnery, a well known publisher of conservative books. I looked, and saw this more recent book from Thomas Nelson Current, ISBN 978-1-59555-283-9, 266 pages, paper, and the title is “con moto” metaphoric: “Home Invasion: Protecting You Family In a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad”. The cover also includes the phrase “cultural terrorism.”

Okay, I finished this one while waiting for “The Men Who Stare at Goats” at an upscale mall AMC Theater, probably not far from where she lives (Tysons), and included a picture of the ticket stub to make one point. She doesn’t like the distraction that the media throws at families trying to raise their kids. And that’s an understatement. (She probably wouldn’t like this particular movie.)

In September, I reviewed Allan Carlson’s “The Natural Family: A Manifesto”, and although this new book has a similar message, I wouldn’t call it a manifesto; it doesn’t read down from “on high”. Instead, with a bit of a paradigm flip from Carlson, this new book presumes that most adults really want families and a lineage but finds our modern corporate media culture a horrific distraction. Yes, tangentially she mentions homosexuality and gay marriage as negative influences, without giving much “logic” in an explanation. In fact, normal people with normal families have to run for the covers because of too much inward-focus, encouraged by commercial, secular culture. Most of her "moral" values are based on "God's rules" and don't seek deep intellectual rationalizations.

Hagelin is specific in some areas. She writes vividly how she was stranded in Little Rock on 9/11, and how that was a wakeup call, that American individualists cannot continue to live according to an unsustainable paradigm. In her last chapter she makes what is probably one of her “30 Ways” – for a wife to ask her husband to become a sole breadwinner. Laura Schleshinger has suggested that. But this sort of thing spreads to affect men who never did have children at all: they might be expected to become providers for others, especially given the rapidly escalating eldercare crisis.

Again, that little conjunction “If…” makes all the difference. If you have children, you should be in a monogamous marriage (I’ll leave aside the same-sex question), and you have to put them first. True, teenagers should not be overwhelmed with sexual messages; they should focus on their schoolwork, sports, and life skills. True, people from non-functioning families do more drugs and have more teen pregnancies. No argument there.

But what if you don’t have children? The Carlson book took on that question more directly, perhaps, although then not even that directly. But an obvious inference of Hagelin is that people whose lives center on the abstractions of media or other instrumentalities of the expressive work world and who do not pay attention to people may be burdening those who do have children and who do try to maintain traditional families. The “modern world” with its communications technology and other infrastructures did provide someone like me (however “schizoid”) the opportunity to live a rewarding “alternate” life, but one which maintains extreme interpersonal selectivity (along with upward affiliation), and which denies offering people unwelcome emotion or attachments. I could go on here, and will elsewhere; it gets existential, but there is the gut reaction that some kinds of interpersonal situations (maybe demanded of me by others) do not “deserve” my emotions, much less sexual interest, long term or otherwise. Of course, this “modern world” may be more fragile than we could have imagined fifteen years ago. Of course, the "Introvert Advantage" dependent on technology can be taken away by external events.

I could step into the literay agent world (I've worked with them) and say, if you're going to write and publish a book like this, at least cover all the bases. What are the "rules of engagement" for people who find some path in life other than having children (or taking vows of poverty)? (Carlson may come closer to doing this.) Maybe some people won't like your proposal, but make them anyway if you speak about this at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thieves filch expensive textbooks from libraries for Internet reselling

Who says that the world has forgotten about printed books? In Prince Georges County, MD, twelve people have been indicted for “filching” books from public libraries (borrowing without the intention to return), reselling them to bookstores or on the Internet, taking advantage of the “residuals” market of book resellers. Over $90000 of merchandise has been pilfered this way. The link for the story (The Washington Post, Metro Section, Nov. 11, by Ruben Castaneda) is here.

The main incentive seems to come from the high price of college textbooks, as these were many of the filched books. Some new textbooks now cost $200 a copy.

Authors complain that the resellers market undermines the sale of their books (especially print-on-demand). However they are still the only source of many out-of-print books, including some that have been reviewed on this blog.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Dinesh D'Souza: "Life After Death: The Evidence"

Life After Death: The Evidence
I recall, in the fall of 1958, in sophomore English at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, that a (female) classmate wrote a theme in which she tried to prove the existence of God. She got an A on the theme (I don’t remember what my choice was for that assignment).

That long memory trace popped up into my mind when I heard about Dinesh D’Souza’s new book “Life After Death: The Evidence” from the (“conservative”) Regnery Publishing Company in Washington DC, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59698-099-0, 267 pages, hardcover, with a garish blue dust jacket.

The most striking piece of “evidence”, for my money, comes from general relativity, and the evidence today that there are up to eleven dimensions, seven of which are out of sight (since we live in “space-time” in our Universe). These dimensions might be accessible through “branes” linked to subatomic quantum-like particles, perhaps inside black holes. Perhaps the existence of "dark matter" and "dark energy" corresponds to these normally unreconciled dimensions. But their very existence gives a Deity an opportunity to “construct” (not needing a sharp-point compass or protractor) lots of other Universes to house versions of an Afterlife. Indeed, Clive Barker had toyed with a theory of all this with his Five Dominions (the First was essentially the Afterlife amd the Fifth was ours) in his epic 1991 “Chinese puzzle” novel “Imajica”. (D'Souza does offer discussion of "near-death" experiences but this does not really add much to his argument.)

Quantum theory maps out to the duality of mind and matter, and to the paradoxes we get into when we account for the Universe being the way it is and our planet’s being exactly right for life (and particularly Ben Stein’s exploration of Intelligent Design in the movie “Expelled”). That’s the “Anthropic Principle” perhaps, lending on a number of factors (our large Moon, Jupiter, the properties or water, etc) making our Blue Planet Earth just right (means we’d better take care of it).

This gets to be elaborated into what sound like a conservative’s view of New Age theory about spirit, self, mind, the group, etc. D’Souza takes us through a thorough philosophy of morality (or a blueprint that he would call a teleology), particularly an interesting idea of “selfishness” at the genetic, rather than individual, level. That explains some self-sacrifice (and it certainly explains “conservative” notions of “family values”) , but “evolution” cannot easily deal with higher order altruism expected in Gospel-style Christianity.

Here, I feel tempted to digress into my own area. D’Souza does not delve into gay issues (other than one metaphoric humorous oxymoron “zombie pride”), but in my own experience I can relate to replacing “genetic selfishness” (otherwise I would want to procreate and have a lineage to provide vicarious immortality) with “mind selfishness” in which a “legacy” of intellectual property (be it music or writings, all with ideological influence as to bearing on right and wrong) lives on. This can become boorish, whereas living “real life” is replaced by kibitzing the emotions of others. For me, the worst psychological horror is to be coerced into joining into the cultural causes defined by others regardless of my own view of the "morality" of these causes, and wind up being part of their group asking for help in a group manner. Yet, jumping ahead, Christianity (even compared to other religions) seems to demand some suspension of one's own judgment of right and wrong. Call it "pride" if you like, or even "the knowledge of good and evil."

Generally, higher moral notions (and the propagation of the “noumenal” part of us) do relate to various conceptions of an afterlife, even in agnostic or atheistic conceptions by philosophers such as Schopenhauer. Ultimately, D’Souza explains how Christianity is “different” with its notion of grace, which replaces almost completely the idea that one can earn one’s own salvation with works or good karma in the usual sense. D’Souza speculates on what Hell and Heaven would look like, with a degree of Hollywood imagination (I suspect he’s read “Imajica”, and perhaps seen some films like “Wristcutters”). D'Souza, on p. 228, offers an odd comment, "Some humans may be better than others, but the differences aren't enough to make a difference." Maybe we need Grace because a progression of Life is impossible if it must adhere to absolute justice at an individual level; Life by definition, out of its dualistic biological processes, must be "unfair."

D'Souza does admit that reincarnation is possible but, in his opinion, not probable. (Here he certainly digresses from Rosicurcianism.) He describes eartlhy death as the "termination of experience" which he believes would not really happen given the deeper laws of modern physics.

In 2002, I read (and reviewed on an earlier book by D’Souza, “What’s So Great About America?” (again, Regnery). I seem to recall a metaphor or example about a “Starbucks Guy” and a concept of “authentication” by which one establishes that one’s work has some real worth to others.

The seven unused dimensions (11 minus 4, including time) might correspond to the seven heavens, and seven doors in Hell is the Islamic version of the afterlife (see "religion facts" here; the Bridge across Hell (probably inside a black hole) would look great in a movie). It's like your life is a test and you get a final exam grade, determining where you will go; your karma points get added up.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Levitt and Dubner: "Super Freakonomics": a does of existential analysis of many popular issues

In recent days, major media outlets have given a lot of attention to the new book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, a followup on “Freakonomics”. The new book is titled “Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance,” 2009, from William Morris Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088957-9, 270 pages, hardcover, indexed.

Most of the book talks about the existential paradoxes that we reach when we follow popular thinking about major issues. The authors believe that many positive changes in society have come about as a result of relatively simple innovations. They give the polio vaccine as an example. Or, they say, consider that whale oil as a fuel source had sustainability problems in the Nineteenth Century. That was replaced, almost on a whimsical accident in Pennsylvania, by fossil fuel oil, leading to today’s debate on peak oil and global warming.

The authors discuss some relatively simple proposed innovations that could cool ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters to prevent super-hurricanes, and also discuss a huge global “straw” to siphon some sulfur dioxide up into the stratosphere to oppose global warming. They also say that global warming could be more influenced by bovine flatulence (releasing methane) that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and locally grown food is not always more energy efficient.

On the social issues, the authors get interesting. They talk about selfishness and altruism, and show that many nursing home visits or eldercare efforts by adult children seem to be motivated by a desire for bequest; therefore, Singapore (wise to all this) passed its “Maintenance of Parents Act”, one of the world’s most rigidly enforced filial responsibility laws putting responsibility on adult children (most of all the childless themselves).

The authors also discuss statistical evidence that violent crime may have increased since the 1950s in relation to how much exposure young men or boys have to television. It's not violent content that is the issue, as much as the lack of socialization, perhaps.

The authors also explain the particularly self-destructive behavior associated with terrorism, which they say often comes from relatively privileged young men seeking to make their lives into bombastic public statements. They discuss not only 9/11 but also the 2002 Malvo sniper cases, and lay out some horrific hypothetical scenarios which need not be repeated here. They also discuss some profile characteristics of these young men (some of which are kept classified, a secret that the authors say they respect), one of which is the lack of life insurance (because of a lack of generativity).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Geoff Livingston: "Now Is Gone": Social media replace one-way self-publishing

Geoff Livingston was one of the panelists at the “Social Media Outlook” forum at Tysons Corner Va. Oct. 14, sponsored by Potomac Tech Wire, and he mentioned his book “Now Is Gone: A Primer on New Media for Executives and Entrepreneurs,” published in Laurel MD in 2007 by Bartleby, with ISBN 978-0910155731. The book runs 194 pages, with an attractive “Milwaukee Road” yellow and black cover, paperback. The website for the book is this.

The transition from “Web 1.0” to “Web 2.0” roughly marks the development of a duality: the Web moves from being a one-way publishing platform (especially for self-publishing) embellished with the kernel of e-commerce, to a public interaction forum that restructures not just social meeting, but the whole functioning of a market economy, with public relations and marketing.

My own experience is instructive. I started by writing a book focused on trying to lift the ban on gays in the military, and found that I was developing a whole paradigm to understand the tension between individualistic and group or family-based ways of looking at moral issues. Once the paradigm is published and becomes known, it is difficult for special interests to maintain a grip on the debate, because it is “always there,” available through search engine for anyone. I maintained “running footnote” files as flat web pages to supplement the book (and put the book online). But in 2006, I basically replaced the “running footnote” maintenance with the blogs that you see today.

But the Web 2.0 approach to repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” would support the “special interest” way of doing things: you use social media to find and grow like-minded people, raise money (organizations call this “development”) and make your cause socially, rather than just intellectually, compelling. Indeed, the social aspect of this problem (DADT) is in practice much harder than the intellectual part (it’s pretty easy to knock down the old arguments for the military ban, that is).

Indeed, the media has presented many ways in which the Web is used for charitable giving and organizing volunteer and relief efforts (as after Hurricane Katrina).

When I wrote my book and first created my site in 1997, I regarded my “work life” and “expressive life” as separate, the latter as almost my “private life” (even despite my Minneapolis television appearances in early 1998). Social media, however, force “unification” of one’s “online reputation.”

The book includes an introduction by Brian Solis, and some “Best of the Buzz Bin Interviews” with Shel Holtz, Toby Bloomberg, Todd Derfen, Brian Oberkirch, Laura Ries, Kami Watse Huyse, and Scott Baradell. It’s interesting to me that the Additional Reading Lists gives Rebecca Blood’s “The Weblog Handbook” but not Nancy Flynn’s American Management Association guide “Blog Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policy, Public Relations, and Legal Issues" (006).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Discount retail chains erode publishers' business models

Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears are drawing Amazon into a book-pricing war that could be harmful to publishers (especially self-publishers), according to a story by Stephen Lowman in the Washington Post, Wednesday Oct. 21, p. 19A, link here. The title of the story is “Amazon, discounters in book-pricing war; Wal-Mart fires first, online giant responds, then Target enters fray”.

The strategy of the lowballing on book prices is to draw customers into adding other higher profit margins, like clothing, to their shopping carts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Libraries allow readers to download books, one at a time

Public libraries are exploring “digital lending” of books, in a model in which only one reader can download a particular digital book at a time, according to a story by Mokoto Rich in the October 15 New York Times, “Libraries and readers wade into digital lending”, link here.

Generally, these books cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle or the Apple iPhone. But still, since visitors can download onto their personal laptops, publishers worry that the practice would ruin sales, as visitors could essentially get personal use copies for free.

Of course, I have no objection if readers do this with my authored books.

Also, look at this column by Ashley Surdin in the Monday, Oct. 19 2009 Washington Post, "In some classrooms, books are a thing of the past : Digital texts gaining favor, but critics question quality", link here.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

E-books could faces "Napster-like" threat

Randall Stross has a provocative article in The New York Times this morning, “Will E-Books Be Napsterized?” link here, in the Digital Domain section of the paper’s Business Section.

My own personal reaction is, if I want to read an entire book, I usually want a hard copy, to peruse while waiting for the previews in a theater (if the overhead lights are on). But, as the article points out, portable tablet devices, self-illuminated even for dark spaces, may quickly change things, even “on the beach”.

The article discusses RapidShare as having unwittingly been involved in questionable hosting of copied book material. The company says it honors DMCA take down notices.

Again, I’ve made my own books available online for free viewing (at in order to gain “limelight”. However, established authors and publishers depend on original sales, and the world of trade publishing, like movies, is a bit insular and self-protective (as discussed in the review of Patry’s “Copyright Wars”, previous post). Authors Guild, for example, the last time I looked, only accepts as members authors who are normally able to gain advances before publication. The rise of self-publishing may challenge this old model, and new authors may object much less to free copies, further eroding the older business model.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Patry: "Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars"

Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars (0)
Author: William Patry.
Title: "Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars".
Publication: London: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-538564-9, hardbound, 266 pages.

Patry, a Senior Copyright Counsel at Google who says that this book expresses only his own views, has an interesting metaphor. Copyright is an adjunct to social order, or, that is, it has been set up that way over history. Intellectual property rights are not necessarily a “natural right” (like land ownership perhaps); but once enshrined in the law and business, they can be manipulated to protect business models already commensurate with a certain social order (read: the family, judging from previous reviews on this column, although Patry stops short of making that comparison explicit). Hence, he develops his notion of "moral panics" or breakdown of social order (eg, the family, the corporate state).

I got a self-taught novice course in copyright law when I wrote my first book in the mid 1990s. I learned what fair use means, and discovered that there were double standards in place throughout the i.p. world even then, just as the Internet was taking off. There were companies around that would, for a fee, get “permissions” for you; but with any care, you really didn’t need permission. The danger was that an amateur writer could tick someone off.

It’s not unreasonable, in my mind, to maintain that a book author should have, according to conditions of a reasonable marketplace, get some royalty when her work is distributed; or that a composer ( a couple of current friends (pun if you like) of mine are young classical composers) should get paid when his work is performed. I’ve always understood that. It was nice to get a few hundred dollars in book revenue during the latter part of 1997. But my main purpose was to make an argument and, frankly, enter the limelight.

What gets hairy, as Paltry explains, is how businesses over the centuries tried to control how media could be developed and distributed by others, going all the way back to the time of the Catholic Church faced by the threat of the printing press. In his introduction, Paltry asks if copyright was a “tax” on consumers for the benefit of content authors, but as the book develops, it seems like it’s a tax to preserve the corporate-familial state.

In that sense, as I have explained on my blogs before, my own model for distributing political arguments is a “threat” to established models of publishing, and of lobbying for political influence. Back in the late 1990s, fellow libertarians in Minnesota warned me that I would be perceived as a “threat”; it’s turned out that Napster was a threat (as was P2P file-sharing, which the RIAA and MPAA took on as an existential threat, to the point of telephone lawsuits against individual downloaders), but Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, in the final analysis, were not, even though they all proposed revolutionary models. They were what consumers wanted.

That’s the rub, Patry says. He brings this out particularly in his discussion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which is remarkable in its reach in controlling content playback or distribution devices from third parties, even prohibiting what would be fair use. (I recall that back in the 1960s a friend and I would tape each other’s classical records for private use; and we would justify it morally by saying that we both bought lots of vinyl records anyway, usually at big sales; Patry brings up the notion that even the CD was at one time perceived as an existential threat to the vinyl record, before the Sony BetaMax case blew the whole old-fashioned “record sales” and old broadcast television models out of the water, because Sony also gave us non-infringing uses. Don’t forget here MGM v. Grokster, where downstream liability applies if a “new” business model is predicated primarily upon the expectation of user infringement.)

OK, on the DMCA, let me get back on subject. Patry’s point is that Congress was promised that the DMCA would actually promote legitimate consumer interests; in fact it did not, as we know. The notorious “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, the take-down (or “disable”) provision, often credited (along with Section 230 of the 1996 CDA) of “saving the Internet” for free entry, is very much abused, Patry says, by third party companies who automate the process of generating bogus complaints, often intended to suppress free speech (rather like SLAPP). I digress here and recommend the link “Blogopshere Hails Tim Lee’s DMCA Paper” (“Circumventing Competition: The Perverse Consequences of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), link here at the “Technology Liberation Front”. Patry goes into some other side cases, like Redbox and even Cartrivision, an awkward precursor to the VCR.

Patry’s last chapter, “How Innovation Occurs” gives a good distinction between innovation and invention, and makes the case that “creative destruction” really does support “Reagan-style” economic well being for people who do have initiative to act on their own – which fits well into individualism but not into a world predicated on social control. Indeed, think about the “we give you the words” model of sales culture, designed to propagate an existing business structure founded on social and familial structures, in which most people never really become content creators.

Patry’s writing style is interesting, and paradoxical: he has lots of very long quotes himself, developing his subject matter in academic dissertation-style.

I don’t think the book makes a “Michael Moore” film. But maybe an innovative documentary filmmaker could take on Copyright, for PBS for example.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jeff Sharlet: "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power": when Jesus constitutes everything

Author: Jeff Sharlet.

Title: "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power".

Description: New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-056005-8, 454 pages, paper

The author is a visiting research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media. And his thesis, which he tries to document with some street experience, is that American political and economic power, throughout his history, has been directed by a cabal of businessmen and politicians who meet as a kind of semi-secret society, under the veneer of fundamentalist (maybe evangelical – that’s not the same thing) Christianity. The cabal is responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast and for many other faith-based initiatives that have been pushed by largely Republican administrations.

His first chapter, in fact, depicts his own stay (I think in 2001) at an estate in the northern (wealthier) part of Arlington VA called Ivanwald. Here, some religious men live together in a kind of pseudo-monastery-like community. Sharlet alludes to a tad of hidden, latent homoeroticism, when he talks of the swimming pool and of one younger resident particularly proud of his buff, hairless chest. And at various points in the many succeeding chapters, tracing religious and conservative leaders back to the 18th Century, he does also note the evolution of anti-gay rhetoric, as somewhat of a corollary of a deeper need for moral rationalization of a power base. But this is all familiar stuff, to anyone, like me, who lived in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, during the Reagan years (when AIDS broke out).

Then, there is the issue of the title of the book, “The Family”. On p. 180, mentions the idea that in a religions nation of rugged individuals, “family captured that paradox more neatly, a nation of cozy little kingdoms ruled by Father.” Remember that in the “Manifesto” book by Carlson that I had just reviewed, the “family”, rather than the individual, is the granularity of self-concept, and this passage hints of that; but what “The Family” here addresses is a more conventional view of conservative morality: the world needs to make sure that every individual “pays his dues”, and while “family values” tend to push that, the real way to make the world “collectively” moral is Christ-centeredness. Sharlet discusses a concept called piety, where religious faith seems to exist for its own spiritual ends (saving souls, perhaps, as I always heard in Dallas – and the entire inerrancy debate) , but the effect is to get every individual to understand his God-intended place in the world where a social and political order seems controlled by others (indeed, by “The Family”). So Faith and Politics become interchangeable or convertible, like Einstein’s mass and energy.

Sharlet has an odd “general relativity” equation, that reads “Jesus + 0 = X”. (In cosmological physics, unlike group theory, there is no additive “zero”). That is, Jesus is everything, and is all you need; nevertheless there is a paradox, perhaps expressed by that notorious Parable of the Talents: in the rightful moral order, some people will have more than others (both in terms of possessions and public limelight) because if Jesus is at your heart, it finally doesn’t matter; it’s just an operational necessity. Sharlet’s book, almost 400 pages, constantly goes through various metaphors expressing this kind of paradox. For example, on p 290, in a chapter called “Interlude” (a kind of introduction to a symphonic finale, his book’s Part III), he concludes with

“What the elite and populist movements of American fundamentalism have together wrought is not a culture war but a cultural evolution, one that is adapting to the twenty-first century faster than secularism. This religion isn’t an opiate of the masses; it’s the American Christ on methamphetamines.”

It's also noteworthy that Starlet, in covering the WWII period, addresses the tendency of religious fundamentalism to migrate toward fascism. On p. 133 he writes, "It is Christianity itself that has prevented fundamentalists, America's most authoritarian demographic, from embracing the cult of personality around which fascist states are organized." But even as Carlson hinted (previous review here), hyper-individualism can flip over into embracing fascist aims. Imagine a "truly indie" movie titled "The Fundamentalist".

In his last section, Sharlet does talk about hypocrisy and the fall of some fundamentalist or evangelical Mega-church pastors, particularly around Colorado Springs, the “Jerusalem” of evangelical Christianity, and particularly Ted Haggard, although he skips the details of the gay trysts that led to Ted’s fall (as in the book by Mike Jones reviewed her Feb. 15, 2009).

The operational effectiveness of this “cabal” has another significance: many (although not all) of today’s socially conservative think tanks and websites are derived from this “Family”, according to Sharlet. That comes as no surprise. But it raises an alarming question. We’re seeing a backlash to the “Wild West” era of the Internet that guaranteed everyone a voice with no risk and no capital. If that’s lost, as I have suggested in previous posts, organizations like the Family will have a lot more control over how things get debated.

Indeed, we’re going to arrive at the view that “drawing attention to yourself” publicly automatically subsumes that you must have responsibility for others; the concept of accepting dependence doesn’t wait for sexual intercourse or for making babies. Just think about the little known areas where this could lead, to the delight of people like the Family: added enforcement of filial responsibility laws, for example. If you believe in individualism, you have to wonder if you owe an intrinsic obligation to support others. That kind of concept transcends religion, but maybe it is the essence of the morality that Jesus (plus zero) taught. But it also expresses a deeper kind of systemic justice: "If I had to do it, then you have to." Chairman Mao knew (and tried to implement) that moral paradigm.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Natural Family": Oh, no, not another "Manifesto"! Is procreation "almost mandatory"?

A couple weeks ago (on Sept. 6), on the Issue blog, I discussed a column by Washington Post commentator Cheryl Wetzstein, itself mentioning the 2007 book by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, “The Natural Family: A Manifesto”. The book is published by Spence in Dallas (known for conservative and Christian books), has ISBN 1-890626-70-8, is 256 pages hardcover, and carries a copyright owned by the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, (link) and the Sutherland Institute ("Personal Responsibility as the Basis of Self-Government") (link). The cover has a picture of a “tree of life”, almost like the tree on another planet in the last scene of the movie “Knowing.”

The book has a website called “family manifesto” (link) which seeks endorsements, and offers a PDF download that right now does not work. I had to order the book from a reseller on Amazon.

Most people are suspicious of any book or paper that calls itself a “Manifesto” (Marx wasn’t the only culprit; my own “Do Ask Do Tell” in 1997 was affectionately called “The Manifesto” by some). But this book’s Introduction does explain the word. I don’t think many high school English teachers will assign a “manifesto” as a type of theme to write for class.

The central point of the book is challenging enough. That is, the nuclear family, of a (married) father and mother and children is a natural social institution, preceding the state or corporation, and it is founded on intrinsically natural differences between the genders, necessitating complementarity. Furthermore, however, the family used to be (and still ought to be) the locus of personal identity. The goals of the person should center around his or her family, not just around himself or herself as an individual. Until he or she marries and has an "own" family, he or she should accept the group identity that goes with his family's genes: that sounds like the most shocking idea. Human beings, to that extent, are social animals and not atomistic loners. The authors maintain that every man naturally should aim to become a father and every woman a mother, in marriage – that is, procreation is, if not exactly mandatory, inevitable, except for a minority of people genuinely unable to do so, which the authors think the “family” should simply protect at home from the outside world. (An important quote from p. 14: "Even if sometimes thwarted by events beyond the individual's control (or sometimes given up for a religious vocation), the calling of each boy is to become husband and father; the calling of each girl is to become wife and mother." Human beings need to learn social attachment as part of their development so that they can become parents. The family provides a natural toggle pivot between altruistic and communal behavior (within) and competitive behavior (without), and the "family" lives outside the world of political ideology. Individualism, as envisioned by political libertarians, fails in this view because it advances separate views (whereas the family unites these visions) – I’m not sure how this kind of thinking could deal with religious diversity. Sustainable freedom, the authors maintain, can live only inside stable “natural” nuclear family units; individual cultural accomplishments are meaningful only when they lead to support of families. (Forget that when writing resumes.) An important corollary of this kind of thinking is that the right to "chose" significant others as an individual and to refuse unwanted intimacy is restricted in a world where blood loyalty is required (for extreme examples, look at how radical Islam behaves). Until one marries and has his (or her) own children, one's loyalties must remain collectively focused (in an "ability-need" axis) on other blood family members as a major locus of identity--experienced by some as a kind of forced intra-family "communism". (This is what happens on the soap operas -- and I wonder if this "moral vision" justifies crime families!)

One of the biggest concerns is depopulation among established families and among people economically able to raise children. This brings us back to the “empty cradle” argument of Phillip Longman (or even “demographic winter”), and leads to a number of “social contract” provisions to encourage families to form and to have more children. Today, the main public policy vehicle is tax credits, but in the past (before feminism) it was the “family wage” (an idea that was advocated by Illinois Senator Henry Hyde in a brief “Mom and Pop Manifesto” in 1994, in Policy Review).

The authors do go on some moderately anti-gay adventures, criticizing the attempt to lift the military gay ban and try to pass laws encouraging gay equality, including gay marriage. But the real issue is that “equality” is a meaningless concept in a world where everyone is loyal to a social group rather than his own ends. The authors pay little heed to arguments about "immutability", as they see "identity" as a matter of accepting other members of a social family unit (and their "problems")as one's own, although at one point they do acknowledge that some people do not reproduce for reasons beyond their control (or for religious vows).

Now, I would counter with this line of thought: Modern society, with its rapidly layered technology, offers “individuals” modes for success and expression that do not require long term committed intimacy or having families. This has become particularly important for women and for gays. But any social contract to favor the family and childbearing and rearing would tend to require “sacrifices” from singletons, and these could become quite crippling. On the other hand, “hyperindividualism,” which uses political “equality” to promote personal sovereignty, can leave families weakened and unable to care for their own weakest members (including adults), leading to more dependence on the “state”, as the authors point out.

An example of this could come with eldercare. Due to demographics, the childless are likely to wind up “paying their dues” with a larger share of the “burden”. I’m surprised that the authors don’t mention filial responsibility laws, and the possibility that budget-strapped states may start enforcing them strictly, as a “pro-family” measure. They do suggest tax credits for people who care for the elderly in their own homes (but not their parents’ homes), and who suggest that family caregiving should earn social security credits.

My own experience growing up could reinforce some of the precepts of this book. I remember resenting the attention that my parents demanded to chores and mechanical and sports activities irrelevant to my talents in music and academics. In retrospect, I can see that these exercises were more about getting me to be able to fit in to a social unit, be able to raise children and “protect” a future wife myself, and do my part in defending the country (otherwise others have to make the sacrifice). I did pick up on the idea that the head of a family has “prestige” for the commitment he has made. But I felt that any such person should be “worthy” of the approbation. Since I was taunted for being developmentally behind physically, I developed the idea that I was not “competitive” enough as a “man” and that it made more sense emotionally to laud those who did (by external trappings) seem competitive enough. I did get "excited" by certain people with certain attributes; although it was a passive experience, it had some sort of moral significance; a person should be "worthy" of that kind of emotional ardor from me, and why would someone who would depend on me be worthy of it? That’s the “Existential Trap.” I wanted the “freedom” for my own emotional and erotic life which, in those days, was still seen as “private” (it is much less private today in an Internet age). But what (existential) “purpose” does that serve? It seems as though it might feed an idea of perfection promoted by the state (hence “body fascism” -- which arguably could someday encourage real fascism again, on another planet, at least). It’s ironic, that the one public venue where there is almost no obesity is a gay disco. We know the challenges in “gay history” in the past few decades; in the 1980s, the challenge was to fight for our own lives; now, it may be to care for the lives of elders. To pay your dues and enter the outside world, it seems as though you have to have a family to support. As John Grisham wrote on the first page of "The Firm", "that was mandatory." If you want to be heard from, shouldn't you be expected to value your own potential lineage enough that you would want it and take responsibility for it? Yes, I can see where the authors of "The Manifesto" are coming from here.

I do understand that socilogists like Carlson, Mero and Longman are saying that someone like me has an undue incentive to "get out of things" by avoiding certain levels of intimacy and connection to others in a social group ("family responsibility" from sources other than direct procreation). The problem is, if someone like me does wind up having to take care of people after not having children (because of filial responsibility, for example), I wind up as a "second class citizen," serving the interests created by the marital sexual intercourse of others when I am not "competitive enough" (or am "too self-absorbed", as Longman says) to procreate msyelf. But then, Carlson asks, if we all become family-centric, then no one (except God maybe) needs to "measure people" globally to "keep score" as to "station in life".

Carlson, with some naivete, perceives the world as automatically a place of plenty, to justify his call for larger families. The climate change crowd would disagree with him, but one could instead make the argument that the need for generativity and sharing of social experience in the future within smaller, local communities argues for family-centered sense of identity.

On p. 13 Carlson and Mero really paint a Rockwell portrait of the "natural family": "We see true happiness as the product of persons enmeshed in vital bonds with spouses, children, parents, and kin." Fine, but it sounds compulsory! "We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns , and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children". Sounds Amish. In another way, sounds bourgeois. Yet, the "natural family", as an irreducibel unit, is immune to "ideology." Yet the authors' value system here amounts to an "ideology" of its own.

Carlson authored a book “Family Questions: Reflections on an American Social Crisis” in 1988. There Carlson had spoken of the "family wage" as a social contract provision (in the past) that protected families (especially with stay-at-home momes) from the "logical consequences of radical individualism" (p 111), and these consequences can be considerable and brutal indeed. There is a similar book “Men of Steel and Velvet” by Dr. Aubrey Andelin from 1982.  Both of these are a bit prescient about today's debates on "sustainability".

Compared to other mammals, human beings can develop both socially and individually. All other primates are social; but humans (especially males) are both social and solitary (like carnivores). A cat lover would say that humans can act both as lions and tigers. The problem is, when too many lions desert the pride (if allowed to), the pride falls apart.

The book concludes with declarations from the World Congress on Families (link), in Geneva and Mexico City.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Carla T. Main: 'Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land': Connecticut at Texas

Bulldozed; "Kelo," eminent domain, and the American lust for land.
Author: Carla T. Main.

Title:'Bulldozed: “Kelo”, Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land'

Publication and Description: New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 1-59403-193-2. 304 pages, hardcover; with endnotes; indexed. Includes 8 pages of black-and-white photos. (Publisher website). The author's own website is here.

I mentioned this in this posting Aug. 20 on my main blog that I wrote in response to a Washington Post column by George Will on free speech and frivolous litigation. That post mentions the litigation surrounding this book; when I ordered it from Amazon, it took a little over a week to get it.

I’ll keep this a “kinder, gentler” review, then. The book is in two parts, with the first telling the story, in detail, of the litigation between the Gore family (not related to former VP Al Gore) and its shrimp and seafood business, and the City of Freeport, TX and real estate developers, one in particular.

I lived in Dallas myself in the 1980s and visited the Houston area often, but I don’t recall driving through Freeport, which is about 60 miles to the SW along the Gulf Coast, very exposed to hurricanes. I do recall similar areas, like Beaumont and Texas City (well, not that similar), and, of course, Galveston, and NASA.

The writing is vivid as to the character of the town (you can sense the hot salt air in the bayous and dikes) and its “good old boy” Texas politics (a lawyer friend of mine who helped me in the 90s on another small matter just says “it’s dumb”). But as to the “facts” in the case, I will plead self-protection and say that the City and the “developers” can state their side of the story. I cannot objectively say who is right as to details.

The second half of Main’s book is another story. She carefully traces the evolution of eminent domain from Revolutionary times. Financial turmoil and practical realities tended to make the colonies and early states somewhat greedy and prone to grab property, all of which contributed to the ideological debate on the nature of federalism and the need for a Bill of Rights. She then moves into modern time, and gives the details particularly of some precedent cases in Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, and most of all Connecticut, where “Kelo v. New London” wound up before the Supreme Court in 2005.

The book gives some dialogue from the oral arguments (as well as some other courtroom drama, worthy of the movies, for some of the cases back in Freeport – if this book becomes an indie movie after all, some of the screenplay already must exist -- also in a couple of process service renditions). Philosophically, as well as legally (and constitutionally as regards to the Takings Clause), it comes down to just when is it OK for a community (or state or the federal government) to take private property for supposedly “public purposes”, when the actual owners will be private developers? And what then is just compensation, when lifelong residents and families (often seniors and the aged) are displaced? Is “economic development” a prerogative of government? Is removal of blight? All of this is very tricky. But it’s clear that the eminent domain problem sometimes does seem to be a battle between the established “powerful” and ordinary citizens, who might now want to benefit from the opportunities afforded by modern asymmetry.

The book raises many interesting side points along the way. For example, in the first half, Main mentions a controversy as to whether an umbrella policy (common with auto and property insurance) should cover a defamation claim – that could become a big issue in the future with bloggers and users of social networking sites. Later, she talks about how Freeport could try to control leafleting and handbills, perhaps an outdated effort in the Internet age. She also gets into how elections can be manipulated to make it harder for working class people to vote in touchy initiatives or political races. That was a bit interesting to someone who has seen the strict procedures of working polls on election days.

Wikipedia link for public domain (now) LA Times picture from Freeport, 1923.

Update: Nov. 16, 2009

One of the companies that bulldozed so much of New London CT is leaving, that is Pfizer. Look at this AP/Washington Times story.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Online flex texts may help college students reduce the cost of textbooks; maybe good for high school, especially in AP

The Washington Times has an interesting story on Wednesday, September 2 about textbook pricing, by Karen Goldberg Goff, “Digital texts could turn the page on rising book costs” (link here) for college students and sometimes in high school.

The article discusses an innovation called the flexbook, which is particularly useful in science and math, with a typical example here. The flexbook application presents the material in a variety of panels that helps the student focus on specific concepts and related equations.

It’s easy for me to imagine how this software could be used to present political science concepts, as in my own books.

E-book texts are still pricey, but about half the cost of printed texts.

Textbooks are heavy and expensive partly because of the strict editing requirements and the amount of detail (including illustrations) that they must contain. You physicians, remember your organic chemistry text as a junior in college? Even the lab text (describing all the preps) was humongous.

The flexbook concept assumes that the student will do more homework online. This might run counter to the desires of parents to control family online use, and is most appropriate for students with more maturity, as in AP courses for college credit while in high school; their use presumes a certain level of online maturity among the kids. Just look at the book reviewed in my last post to appreciate the potential concerns.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict that Changed the Way We Use the Internet" (Scheff, Dozier, Fertik): review

Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet

The “model” case in which an anonymous blogger was outed recently has shifted some attention to an older case back in 2006, where Sue Scheff won an $11.3 million judgment against someone who had launched a tirade of defamatory posts against her and her organization.

And now Scheff, along with attorney John W. Dozier, Jr. has authored the 246 page paperback, “Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict that Changed the Way We Use the Internet,” from Heath Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL, ISBN 0-7573-1415-5. The book has a foreword by Michael Fertik, founded of Reputation Defender. I won’t belabor the metaphor of the first two words of the book’s title (with a graphic on the cover that reminds one of the Enola Gay); suffice it to say, it refers to the enormous “asymmetric” power given to previously non-competitive individuals on the web that could be used destructively and therefore seems to pose “systemic risk”. The book provides plenty of details as to how suddenly search engines took on enormous influence on society and, sometimes, personal reputation (hence the book calls search engines “reputation engines”). Look up those first two words in Wikipedia (the more appropriate term is "link bomb").

Sue Scheff (website) is the founder of P.U.R.E., Parents Universal Resource Experts (website). Dozier is the head of Dozier Internet Law, "the Lawyers for Internet Business" (website).

The format of the book is a bit like a film docudrama (I think this would make for interesting indie film; I’d be game to help make it). Scheff tells the story of her trial and judgment, while Dozier presents “the problems.”

There is a lot of hyperbole in Dozier’s writing (I invoke the “Opinion Rule”). In an early chapter he characterizes some “Monsters on the Web”. I’ll name two of the ten types: the “nerd” and the “mis-leader”. He does start out by characterizing the nerd as “the guy who is scared to talk with a girl” (in person) but the rest of paragraph describes a legitimate problem. I hope he wouldn’t see me as fitting into these categories (as he describes them). But later he does take a swing at “amateurism” on the web, which he suggests would undermine legitimate journalism when the content it produces is legally and ethically harmless at face value. (That discussion reminds me of Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur” which I reviewed here in June 2007.) (Dozier's term is "rookie".) He doesn't seem to care that "citizen journalists" (which he disposes with some metaphors) actually do enrich establishment content with nuance, detail and sometimes even more objectivity. He does offer some constructive comments about the public’s misperception of “free” content and resources.

But, make no mistake, a lot of the “unregulated” behavior that takes place on the Web is horrible (as we’ve seen by covering cyberbullying on this blog before). A lot of it would be seen as “unfair competition” (and Dozier provides numerous examples of how the bad guys attack reputations and narcissistically misdirect traffic to competitors [themselves]). Some of it can involve imposters, as the well known problem of spoofing sender-id’s in spam email. But more sinister is the way some people “mimic” others otherwise inactive on the Web and damage their reputations. So staying off the web may not be enough to defend the reputation of a “technologically shy” person. I don’t use Twitter (at least I’ve never sent a tweet), but I just took the moment to make sure I had a Twitter account so no one can imitate me. Balancing all of this is the idea that in many professions people must use social networking tools on the Web to sell to others.

There is “something” about the topology (and “asymmetry”, as I often point out on my main blog) of cyberspace that makes people in certain professions very vulnerable to cyber attacks. Part of it is the way reputation works in the real world (reputation assumes “guilty until proven innocent”). If you work with kids, parents cannot afford to take a chance, so rumor alone can be destructive. It’s a real problem for teachers and schools, and particularly now in medicine, where some doctors make patients sign “Internet gag order” contracts before treatment. I’ve actually had some personal experience with that situation as I have described on other blogs. Bad reputation can become viral, and affect other people, such as “involuntary” family members connected to the mark.

Dozier has a section that provides a chilling lecture on the effects of a large judgment on a "turnip" with no money. Collections can get brutal, even given the protections of the FDPCA (see this blogger post on the collection effort).

I’ve been little affected by the web activity of others, despite the huge search engine track on my name (try it, with Microsoft’s Bing, too). But in 2000 I was the “target” of a nasty flame on an AOL movie review message board because of the way I had interpreted the social position of the fishermen in the movie “The Perfect Storm” (based on Sebastian Junger’s book), which the speaker thought showed arrogance and conceit.

In the last chapter (“Marquesting the Future” with an embedded “E-Bill of Rights”), Dozier makes some suggestions for public policy changes. He wants to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to protect only “legitimate” ISP’s (who cannot edit content), and take away much current protection from bloggers or webmasters who host comments, and require some responsibility (how he would draw the line is hard to say). (To be fair, he does give some nuances: retain server logs, offer ICANN-like arbitration for immunity disputes, and have a DMCA-like takedown and safe harbor procedure, which we know is easy to abuase.) He also defends the need for strict protection of trademarks from web attacks (the “prospective dilution” of the 2006 law sounds relevant). He does give credit and support for self-policing on the Web (for example, he would probably support the Web of Trust concept and content labeling in relation to the COPA problem). He points out that the sacrosanct nature of anonymous speech (as part of the First Amendment) needs to be reviewed in the context of the “relativistic” speeds of Web travel, and that anonymity must never cover up harmful (libelous or harassing) behavior.

He also is against anti-SLAPP legislation and tort reform. Scheff herself claims that plaintiffs actually have huge burdens, and maybe that was true in her case; but we have read of many cases of frivolous lawsuits in other areas, which have many people to call for tort reform and insist that “loser pays”.

Indeed, Dozier’s suggestions, while somewhat tempered at the end, might eventually shut down free entry into self-publication on the Internet as we have come to know it. But if so, that poses a deep, existential question about the value of individual innovation on the one hand and the importance of familial and social commitments (not always voluntary) as motivators on the other.

I see another posting about the Scheff case on blogger here. But Maia Szalavitz has a counterpoint "Tough Love and Free Speech: How a 'child advocate' gamed the media on the case" in Reason Aug. 2007 here.

The Citizen Media Law Project Page for this case (Florida state court) is here.

Update: Aug. 31

Dozier has a typepad link that shows how search engines pick up "allegations" originally posted on blogs or websites as "opinions" and presents them as facts, so that others who encounter only the search results believe them. Apparently he believes that this alone can open speakers up for defamation. See his example posted in June 2009 here.

Something like this happened in 2005 when I was substitute teaching (see my main blog July 27, 2007). Just because a string shows up in a search engine, that doesn't make it so. I would say, use common sense. But maybe the law doesn't always do that!

Here's Dozier Law's YouTube video on this book (3 minutes).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lawrence Lessig's "CODE Version 2.0": an existential journey of a new way to regulate us -- through the Internet

Author: Lawrence Lessig
Title: "Code Version 2.0"
Publication: New York, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-03914-6, 410 pages, indexed, paper

This book is an upgrade of this Stanford law professor’s earlier “CODE and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. And I like its existential approach. We need to think about what we mean by regulation, what we mean by freedom, and what exactly we have to lose. His basic premise is that the “code” behind our technology effectively implements “regulation” and that can be as important a limit to our experience of freedom as any government’s laws. He is somewhat skeptical of libertarianism (“what Declan doesn’t get” is his last chapter); sometimes you may need government when the asymmetric regulation by private interests impacts people more. His last paragraph warns that we are not in a “great time, culturally, to come across revolutionary technologies.” Compared to the Soviets who were caught by their revolution, “we, unlike they, have something to lose.”

The book is organized into five parts, with a sonata-like format, following his argument. He starts with the “admission” of the unregulability of the original Internet, but says that “Code” develops to implement regulation by various interests. There follows a “latent ambiguity” especially in areas like privacy and free speech, requiring new “fundamental” choices that the framers of the Constitution never encountered. He went on to describe jurisdictional conflicts, and argues that the government(s) will inevitably face pressures to make the Internet more regulable. In the world of regulation, there is basic antipathy between “East Coast Code” (the formal legal system) and “West Coast Code” (the practical regulation implied by the architecture and “code” of applications on the Net). And when Washington plays on the road in San Francisco, the home team wins.

Along the way, he makes many interesting observations. Early in the book, he talks about the enhancement of the “Identity Layer” in protocols, to the point that the properties of a visitor could be ascertained without disclosing full identity (for example, is the visitor a minor), to the point that, contrary to popular belief (and some court opinions) different visitors could be kept from getting certain content illegal for them. Later, he discusses COPA (which I cover in more detail on my Internet filtering blog) and suggests that web publishers self-label with a simpler scheme than PICS (proposed by ICANN).

The free speech section is quite interesting. He equates legal pornography to “harmful to minors” – a notion that was challenged in COPA. But the most interesting part of his discussion on the free speech paradigm concerns its corollary – publication and distribution. He talks about the constitutionality of FCC regulation of broadcast, with the Spectrum issue, and indicates that today’s Net, amplified by wireless, makes the entire broadcast regulatory system (however well politically motivated) moot. He points out that America during the late colonial or Revolutionary City era had a cottage pamphleteering enterprise a bit like today’s Internet blogs in psychological terms.

He does give a lot of attention to the idea that the Web has made everyone a publisher, and he sees the collection of self-published materials (blogs, tweets, sites, videos, social networking profiles and wallpapers) as a good antidote to the “establishment” in that the sheer diversity of material offered by so many speakers offers a counterweight to concentration of power in the media. So far so good. In that sense, for example, any individual speaker would generally maintain some bias influenced by his or her own circumstances and even family responsibilities, chosen or not; the collection of speech offers the “objectivity.” (That collective “objectivity” is the result of Code, especially Google’s, he would say.) But what has happened that certain individuals and small interests have developed code infrastructures that in some sense give them puppetmeister control over the architecture of speech. It seems as if Mark Zuckerburg or Jimmy Wales have social power comparable to that of Barack Obama, in the “Coast” analogy (sorry, Wikipedia is actually housed in Florida, I think). I think my sites and blogs take this a step further, in which I have “encoded” the actual content, expressing opposing viewpoints, and projecting a certain objectivity or neutrality within my own content. Perhaps that steps over the line: I can draw attention to myself, and perhaps unwanted attention to others connected to me (because of the way others perceive social norms, however wrongfully), in a way that suggests I won’t accept an partisan or automatic filial responsibility for others (a claim that society could some day decide it cannot live with). Lessig doesn’t get quite that far (I thought he might) but does mention the “implicit content” problem, where the effect of content depends functionally on the speaker. He gives the example of an account of an alien landing in a supermarket tabloid as not being believed, but it a major network reported one, it would be believed (call it the Orson Welles problem). In fact, I got into trouble when substitute teaching just because a screenplay that I wrote as fiction was seen as “evidentiary” (sort of like the military’s “rebuttable presumption” in the “don’t ask don’ tell” policy), whereas LionsGate films had once made a commercial film for Lifetime with a similar story and message, and hardly anyone noticed. Do I have the same free speech rights as LionsGate? (by the way, a Canadian company). I guess not. Without obvious commercial gain, some people will see such asymmetric "universal speech" as enticement, or as throwing sand in "beasts' eyes", or (as I explained on my main blog May 30, 2009) as an "existential" threat to confidentality in most business dealings. "CODE", for all its origins in "chaos" and a neo-freedom, can bring back social hierarchy with a vengeance.

Lessig does cover the DMCA problem, tracing it back to the gradual evolution of copyright law, pretty well. He covers the paradox, that some artists depend on a free content model (a paradigm that the ISP and telecommunications industry might not be able to sustain or indulge forever – again, Code is law) while others must jealousy protect their “property” as their livelihood. Copyright law complications have grown as copying technology evolved (the Sony Betamax case) but digital copies, with their perfection, provided threats never imagined before, which Congress reacted to with overkill, prohibiting overriding or circumvention copying technology that might really only support Fair Use. Yet, a couple of provisions in late 1990s law (Section 230 and DMCA safe harbor) may, however criticized, be responsible (by limiting downstream liability) for allowing the self-publishing freedom on the Net that we count on today. We should not take it for granted forever. In the analysis of intellectual property, Lessig refers to the writings on the “nonrivalrous” nature of such property as expressed in the writings of founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Lessig gives a more condensed discussion of privacy than did GWU law professor Daniel Solove in his book on privacy, but Lessig explores the interesting notion that privacy rights could be construed as part of property rights (a libertarian notion).

I've come to see myself as a dweller on two or three planets, with Cyberspace as the newest of them, and my urban exile as the second. And they all must become reconciled.