Friday, February 27, 2015

There is a difference between imposing downstream liability, and requiring some reasonable monitoring by service providers for criminal content; Blogger punts on porn ban


I have often written here about the need to remain watchful about downstream liability for service providers, ranging from basic telecom services (those reclassified yesterday by the FCC) and Internet hosting companies (that offer shared and dedicated web hosting) as well as “free” service platforms (generally supported indirectly by advertising), like Blogger (this platform), YouTube, Wordpress, Vimeo, and Tumblr, as well as photo sharing. Of course that includes social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Myspace, LinkedIn, and some other smaller ones.  These depend on whitelisting or invitations, but are also  effectively quasi-publishing sites.  And that includes email providers (AOL). 
  
There has been a lot of public attention in recent weeks to two major issues: pornography or adult content (as well as issues like revenge porn), and recruitment of impressionable people, often older teens and mostly young adults (including women) for illegal or criminal activity, including fighting for foreign forces overseas.  I won’t get into the religious or ideological issue here.  I’m merely concerned because the latter activity is bound to lead, at the very least, to calls for pre-screening content on the web.  Let’s mention also that in the 2011-2012 period we went through a round of this kind of controversy with SOPA/PIPA regarding intellectual property piracy prevention.
  
Remember, we actually saw this kind of debate in the 1990s with the (struck down) censorship portion of the Communications Decency Act, even though ironically Section 230, which significantly protects providers, was part of that Act.  Later a similar conversation occurred with the extensive litigation over the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), to which I was a party, so I am quite experienced with the tone of the conversation on these matters.
  
I would presume that it is illegal to recruit someone to fight for an overseas interest, or to any criminal enterprise.  The illegality would normally trump free speech concerns with this issue (unless the law were challenged in court).  (That's not the case if the speech is simply offensive, or recruits someone to a disturbing but legally protected activity;  there is nothing illegal about recruiting someone to join the Westboro Baptist Church.)  So in an individual case, when there is an arrest, the offending content is always removed.  In various case reported in the media, various companies (especially Twitter) have closed accounts and removed such material when it is brought to their attention.  Still, a great deal of this content remains, and it is frankly very easy to find with little effort.
  
There are some automated tools that providers use to detect videos or images (or possibly text) that infringe on some copyrights, and other criminal issues like child pornography. Some of these tools involve the detection of digital watermarks, and could prevent some content from being posted in the first place. 
  
I want to reiterate that it is not appropriate or realistic to hold providers liable for inciting content that may get posted.  But, for providers with large volumes of users and profits, it is appropriate to expect them to devote some uses, including security employees making actual spot checks with “human eyes” to remove the most flagrant and obvious content that is easily found by anyone.
I’ve written about these matters extensively this week, on this blog, on the International Issues Blog (where I wrote in detail about the “recruiting” problem late last night), and on the COPA blog, where I have suggested that companies like Google and Microsoft take up the reins of the abandoned “voluntary content labeling” project, started a few years back in the UK by a group called ICRA (Internet Content Rating Association) and FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute).  I’ve also made such postings on Facebook and Google+.
  
This last week of February, in an extended cold winter, has been critical for the future of the Internet in more ways than one.  The seriousness of the recruiting and censorship problems may be obscured in the eyes of the general public by the bluster over the supposed “victory” in network neutrality.  That may become irrelevant if we lose the right to post user-generated content without gatekeepers. 




Update (later today):  Blogger appears to have deferred the "no porn" policy and will instead focus on enforcing its rules against monetizing porn (introduced in June 2013).  The posting is by Jessica from the Blogger Team.  Check the link from the Feb. 24 posting.  PC Mag has a whimsical account here, which Webroot tweeted today. The account didn't take the underlying problems seriously.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Fair Use Week": Congress should protect defendants who show "good faith"


Internet users are celebrating Fair Use Week as this very long winter peaks, link here. It’s important to remember that speakers overseas often do not have the protection of a “Fair Use” doctrine.
  
Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an article by Mitch Stoltz, writes that Congress should strengthen Fair Use with a “Do No Harm” policy.  One of the most important ideas is to remove statutory penalties for infringement when the alleged misuse did not actually result in financial loss for the owner, and also when the defendant had acted in “good faith”.  Content creators sometimes mix other artists’ work in ways that courts have never considered, a move that EFF calls “financial Russian Roulette”, almost out of a famous scene in the movie “The Deer Hunter”.  Composers tell me that all music composition involves some copying.  Remember the dreaded phrase, “I’ve heard that before.”  When I go to the movies, I often wonder that – what obscure classical work did the background music come from, not credited.
  
EFF also suggests that there should exist an exception to DMCA circumvention procedures (Section 1201) when the intention is fair use. 
  
  
One good question would be making copies at home (with cell phone cameras) of screenshots from movies for television shows when the use is completely private, and never posted online.  The possibility could exist that in the future technology could scan cloud backups for such “infringements”. 
   

Man major motion pictures today offer a statement at the end, of the number of jobs supported by making the film, as a further psychological deterrent to piracy.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New policy for Blogger a sign that service providers may become more pro-active in policing content; but what about the "one strike" problem?


The sudden announcement by Google late Monday that it would no longer allow most sexually explicit images on its Blogger platform (even under interstitial warnings) after just one short month is a sign that service providers are becoming more wary of public pressure to police their users, despite the obvious retort that they can’t prescreen every post for every possible problem (or we would have no “user generated content” as we know it now).  Again, right now these images do seem to be allowed under “interstitials” on YouTube, so there is still some question as consistency, and as to how of the problem is really about images, and especially third-party embeds. Hopefully more details are forthcoming. (Sorry, "Interstitial" is not synonymous with "Interstellar").  
    
Some of the pressure might indirectly come from overseas (and in fact, the stories in the British news sites Tuesday were particularly energetic).  Providers face all kinds of issues, like the “right to be forgotten” in Europe. Furthermore, in the US and overseas, the stake of families with children, from less tech-savvy parents who can’t possibly monitor their kids all the time, certainly matters.  The leniency of the environment in the past is blamed for encouraging cyberbullying, especially of women and of less “competitive” high school teenagers (again, often female).  And now some social media platforms seem to be a convenient recruiting tool for overseas terrorists, who seem to broadcast their mind control before the social media companies can find their videos and take them down and close accounts. 
  
Pornography is perceived as part of the “problem”, but indeed the issue is much bigger.  There are many possible objections that could be raised to postings made by higher-volume bloggers, myself included.  We can certainly sit around and say “what if….”   Many of the issues, from a moral viewpoint, were vetted in the COPA trial (in Philadelphia – I went for one day) in 2007 (including the nefarious “implicit content”);  so even though service providers like Google, Facebook, Wordpress and Twitter are all privately owned, all of these companies ought to become familiar with what was argued in that case.  
  
Indeed, as I’ve noted here in numerous postings, many of the abuses of social media seem to come from people who “take it for granted” and don’t seem to have a lot of personal accountability to others, or live in denial of this responsibility (more often the case).
  
There is a real problem with making a policy retroactive, to content that was already posted and that has been out for years, under different circumstances.  Among my blogs, the Movie Reviews is the most likely to have an issue with a few trailer embeds, from smaller companies that didn’t submit their films to MPAA (or couldn’t afford to).  A few of these trailers may have isolated moments (or Final Cut Pro frames) that would “cross the line”, even though they haven’t been labeled as adult to YouTube.  It would be helpful if there was a tool in Blogger and Youtube that could disable inappropriate embeds for non-adult, public embeds.  In most cases, another suitable video exists (like a director interview) that could be used instead. One possible symptom of unsuitability is that when you look at the blog posting in Blogger, the embed won’t expand (it leaves a huge white space), even though it still will show when played in a browser (and not give an interstitial warning).  That sounds like a programming issue (in Blogger) that could be addressed.
  
I can’t tell yet how large blogs with only very incidental, accidental or very isolated “adult” content in a few postings would be handled.  Without some tools (especially with respect to embeds) and some more specifics on what violates policy, it isn’t possible to guarantee that there can’t be a problem with previously accumulated and now searchable posts. Will Google actually be able to warn established bloggers about new TOS issues with specific older postings?  We all know that “adult content” and “sexually explicit” can be floating standards and somewhat subjective around the edges (“I know it when I see it”).  Even the Supreme Court, when considering COPA (in 2002 and 2004), wondered what a “national community standard” really means.  The Movies blog brings the largest number of page requests (it views with Books for separate visitors).  The other blogs, the content is such that this exposure, from third party materials from companies or entities behaving according to the norms of their own communities, really doesn’t pose this kind of risk.  Given the workload on new content (fiction, screenplays, music, my own video), there really isn’t time to move a large blog like Movies to another platform quickly and keep all the links intact (the easiest might be hosted Wordpress, probably), so as of now, I don’t want to do this.  I hope Blogger and YouTube come up with some better tools if the want us to have retroactive responsibility for content, if “one strike” is out (like one time in tenth grade physical education, when I pitched a “shutout”).  
  

A blog like one of mine (or those of probably most others) that isn't "public" is pretty useless.  Blogs no longer attract followers since newer forms like Facebook and Twitter (and Google+) have taken over the "friend" and "follower" concept. Blogging, as such, could decline, or at least retreat to being part of flat sites with a lot static material, always hosted.  Perhaps a small number of companies could make "private blogs" devoted to sexually explicit material work with "membership" requirements, but normally they would to this with their own sites, not free blogs.  
  
As an added note, I see in the Forums that "Nitecruzr" gives some general guidelines on content complaints (adult classification), at least through 2014.  I suspect he will add some more material to this soon.  
  
Note (Feb. 27):  The "no porn" policy has been deferred.  See the product forum mentioned in the Feb. 24 posting. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Many questions abound as Blogger suddenly announces it will red-line blogs with sexually explicit videos or images in just 28 days


This morning, when I signed on to Blogger, I noticed a broadcast warning that, on Monday March 23, 2015, images or video with sexually explicit material will not be allowed on public or searchable blogs on Blogger.  The basic link with the exact wording is here.   It appears as of this writing that ALL Blogger users saw this when signing on this morning.
   
It also appears that specific users got individual emails from Blogger service advising them that their content may have this problem, as explained in this story on Vox-owned “The Verge”, which shows a tweet containing the exact wording of the email, here
   
I did not receive such an email on either of my two platforms (Gmail or AOL).  That would give me some reassurance that “I don’t have a problem” with any of the sixteen blogs.  But the story is disquieting, and has a lot of angles that seem unclear.
  
Blogger says that it will not delete content, but will mark the blog as private and remove it from Google search engines.  A private blog can only be shared with “whtelisted” users who are signed on, very much like a Facebook account where most material is marked viewable only by “friends”.   Effectively, blogs with “adult” content (limited in scope hopefully to visuals) can no longer be used as a form a broadcast self-publishing. Google says it will offer the ability to export the blogs to XML or other formats to put them onto other platforms. 
  
The Google policy does indeed appear to be limited to “redlining” content only because of what is images or videos – which might include third party embeds.  This apparently is also limited to what is normally viewed as “graphic nudity”.  It apparently does not appear to apply to material that some users would see as objectionable for cultural reasons.  Google also says there is an exception for material reasonably viewed as having “public benefit” for documentary, scientific (medical) or artistic purposes.
  
There are many other issues in Blogger Terms of Service, including copyright infringement (covered by the DMCA Safe Harbor takedown), harassment, threats, violence, and the like.  But so far these all seem to be covered on a case-by-case basis, when there are complaints from other users.
  
The “obvious” question is, how does Blogger identify the offending blogs?  One item mentioned in the discussions so far is blogs marked as “adult” in Blogger settings (link ).  Presumably these would be made private.  I have not marked any blogs as such (I’ll double check).  But if a blog is not self-identified, Blogger would have to rely on complaints from other users, or on some sort of automated process.   It is possible to identify some images based on watermarks, but any images marked by NCMEC would actually be illegal anyway (and could get the poster arrested).  
  
By the way, there is a twist. The Blogger content policy allows Blogger to mark a blog as adult even if it is non sexually-explicit in nature (see the links ).  But that scenario doesn’t seem to be covered by the announcement Monday, that seems more limited to sexually explicit images and video, if I interpret it correctly. This page covers other issues, like gratuitous violence or threats, in a manner that most  people would view as reasonable and necessary, especially given international issues.
   
Embedded (third party) videos could pose a risk.  On the movies blog, I often embed trailers, usually from studios if possible.  Most trailers, even for R-rated movies, are marked for “all audiences” so presumably these are OK.  But some independent films, especially those released mostly as VOD, could have R-rated trailers.   I usually don’t use these, but there could be a handful among the 2000+ postings.  Could this cause the blog to be unlisted as private forever?  A few trailers may have material that is “risqué” but not really perceived as sexually explicit by most viewers.  Generally, images and videos that themselves would fall within the “PG-13” area as Hollywood defines it would be OK.

It’s not quite clear what motivated the suddenness of this change.  Were there complaints from advertisers?  These standards already apply to Google+ and YouTube, so Google apparently wanted consistency.  Google+ TOS does appear to be a little stricter than Facebook’s or Twitter’s  
   
I do think that Google should answer some reasonable questions in the coming days.  For example, will there be an appeal process (as there is for spam)?  Will there be some way to be notified that a particular post (especially an older one) has a problem, if it is right on the edge?  I have no way of knowing (retroactively) that there isn’t an isolated post somewhere (especially in Movies, TV, or GLBT) that doesn’t cross the edge. I know that as a “whole”, there wouldn’t seem to be problems. But there is the “isolated tornado” effect.
  
Some of the issues here remind me of the debate over COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, which was struck down in 2007 (discussed here on Wordpress, link ).  One of the issues there was the notion of what constitutes “adult content” – in the real world, there is a sliding scale of variable maturity among minors as by age and circumstances (the “Smallville Problem”)..  Some progressively-minded efforts after that case recommended voluntary self-labeling (with metatags) of adult content.  But that appears to be what would get a blog blacklisted now, so this contradicts voluntary efforts that would serve the public interest.
  
There is a lot of panic and anger out there this morning.  The most hysterical story seems to be on ZDNet, here, by Violet Blue from Pulp Tech, here. ZDNet also believes that the shift in use to mobile apps has an effect on how service providers view content.  The Guardian (whatever Glenn Greenwald’s influence) has a more moderate story here. BBC has a story here and reports that in 2013, Blogger had prohibited adverts for adult websites, a measure that I vaguely remember but that had little impact.  BBC hints that the mechanism will be for Google to add the “adult tag” itself.  That would suggest that a blogger could check his or her profiles to see if the tag was added, but that’s isn’t clear yet.   Computerworld, in an article by John Ribeiro, also notes the “adult flag” issue marked above, which doesn’t seem entirely consistent with the new policy, link here.  Global News Network has a story which also discusses Wordpress and Tumblr policies for comparison, here
       
One can expect a lot more protests and comments, and hopefully there will be more clarification from Google soon.  (Tumblr went through this and dropped it.)  The lack of clarity as to how questionable content is identified is one thing. Another is the concept that content can be adult but not be sexually explicit in the usual sense – that seems immune now, but what about down the open road?
  
One issue is whether “free service” blogs will continue to be a viable way to broadcast content (as opposed to whitelisting on newer social media sites).   I have often considered reducing the number of these blogs, and migrating entirely to hosted sites, but so far all I have done is start two new “hosted” Wordpress blogs, where I probably have more control.   But broadcast self-publishing doesn’t seem to enjoy the support today that it did ten to fifteen years ago, before it would have to survive COPA and then SOPA (after surviving the CDA).  It’s been sheltered largely by downstream liability limitations (Section 230 and Safe Harbor).  But the social climate, placing more emphasis on the need for real engagement of people, seems to be affecting the current perception of blogging.   

Yes, the artwork picture for this posting is tame, deliberately so.   



Update:  Later Tuesday

Blogger does have some details on the Product Forums.  A user has to be signed on to a Google account to see these details, but the direct link is here.   A user should sign on, go to the Blogger Help Forum, and then navigate to all discussions.  A posting from Carles PG (two posts now) about a "Blogger content policy change appears".  The user may have to click an extra time to see the first posting before the second.    Apparently the emails went out to those who had interstitial (adult content warning) pages, regardless of whether there was nudity.  Blogger seems to suggest that self-identified adult pages can stay public if they don't actually contain nudity.  It's not clear yet how third party embeds are handled, or whether future warning emails can identity specitic posts or images when atypical on larger blogs.  
     
Users of Blogger should visit this forum frequently in the coming days for more details, which will surely be posted.  
      
There is some discussion on line of the vague term "adult content", as here on a webmaster forum. Note the passage of material that is "not for audiences" but then gives an example of a cartoon with see-through clothing.  Seriously, "not for all audiences" would dumb down pretty much everything if taken literally. Seriously, some verbal (not image) content is inappropriate for younger minors;  when I talk about sensitive issues (which is often), I usually maintain a certain tone of formality and distance to avoid creating "problems".  This problem got debated with COPA a few years ago. 
   
One tip in embedding or even linking to YouTube videos.  Try playing them from YouTube without being signed on.  If you get an adult interstitial (justified or not), consider using a different video.  What gets marked on YouTube now probably gives a fair indication of what Google would consider a problem. 

It's possible to upload and process video right to Blogger without embedding from YouTube, Vimeo, or other sources.  Maybe this is what the new policy refers to; one wonders if content that is accepted on YouTube should be automatically accepted on Blogger.  If am embedded video gives an interstitial when played on YouTube, couln't it be set up to do that from Blogger?


Update:  Friday, Feb 27 

The Google Forum for Blogger has been updated to show a deferral of the policy.  See my posting Feb. 27, and revisit the actual Forum (after signing on) as soon as possible for the latest update.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sustainable freedom III: lots of relativistic paradoxes (and why crowd-funding falls short)


At one level, the road to “success” (both personal and business), and particularly the optimal use of social media seems to invoke plain common sense.  Don’t cling to people.  Don’t act jealous, or don’t covet.  Set your own goals and follow them.  Online, post original content, or at least new slants on things; don’t just regurgitate or pass along what sounds politically correct.  Demonstrate critical thinking, and expect it of others.  These points apply especially when posting to “newer” media with followers or friends, who don’t need multiple repetitions of the latest outrages already reported in major news media.

Indeed, if you follow this advice, work hard and don’t get interrupted too much by external forces, you may well succeed, very publicly, and have the consort of the people you want.
  
The libertarian believes this approach is best for “society”.  The supposed “socialist-liberal” is concerned that it is too predicated on good luck and the exploited labor or sacrifices of others.  Often, people of faith (especially strict and conservatives religious systems) believe the latter, too.  Indeed (or, as in ninth grade English, “but, alas”) my having total freedom to accomplish what seems best for me as individual, even when viewed with the modern independent lens of personal responsibility, isn’t always the best thing for the sustainability and stability of the culture as a whole, or for a lot of more disadvantaged people who live in it.  Particularly, it might be disingenuous for those (like me) who are “heard” not to have more direct responsibility for others and dependents than some of us take on. We might be expected to "join up" with others even when they are partisan and even "wrong". 
         
On February 18 (as “Pisces” started, maybe), I outlined what might reasonably be expected of me (especially for "political" messages), in my somewhat “privileged” current circumstances, especially in the paragraphs that follow the snowflake picture. (Yes, Snowflake, AZ, site of an alien abduction in 1975, no less.) Some of these ideas would indeed stretch me, in a space-time sense. They go “out of the box”  (to use a phrase of the one girlfriend I once had).  It sounds arguable (especially to Putin-heads) that I should be “required” to open myself up to “others” more, but that simply brings on authoritarianism.  It only works with a change of heart,  that people in the Goldilocks Zone really “want to”.   Remember the rebellious teen, who finally says “I did it because I wanted to, not because you ordered me to.”  How would this play out with an issue like "gay political asylum" which no one can afford to talk about until someone actually "acts"? 
      
Sometimes that’s necessary.  In the past, charitable overtures (like when I “took someone in”) in 1980, have not really turned out helping the other person that much.  I haven't offered to "mentor" of give the person or activity a lot of "importance".  Again, a libertarian might punt to genetics.  I could say that the other person had such weak parenting and upbringing than my early adulthood he had very little grasp of what the adult world expected.  So does someone like me reaching out matter?   It’s hard to say, and it throws conservatives back to “family values”.  The same observations seemed to apply when I worked as a substitute teacher and ran into unpredictable behavior by the poorly parented students.
  
Sunday, February 22, 2015, before a small, snow-reduced gathering at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, acting pastor Deborah Cochran talked about “being tested”.  Many of these tests today come from the outside world, in the way of disruptions.  Sometimes they test the idea of “love your enemies.”  But sometimes we have enemies because we haven’t owned up to our own dependencies.  Other times enemies that test us really do come from evil. 
  
I’ve made some statements that might seem alarming, and not in the best interests of “others” in the example I could set.  I’ve said there are some lines I won’t cross, particularly if accosted by others, particularly then the motives result from indignation, political stance, or misplaced or extremist religious purposes.  For someone to make that decision doesn’t have effects in his own vacuum. 

It’s also true that my disinterest in “relationships on my own level”, and particularly my past attitude about (not) having children, could be seen as not placing a lot of value on “life itself”, a bit irony as intellectually curious as I am about likely alien life, even alien intelligence.  Even the “message” implied in some of my science fiction books and scripts (as summarized on my Wordpress blogs) seems to be that “not everybody makes it” even if the “erotic royalty” (as I call it at one point) becomes immortal angels. 
  
I do work alone, and can get a lot done if I stay in course and am not distracted or, particularly, deliberately interrupted.  And if I stay lucky enough.  Yet, my doing so, and freedom to do so, is a sign that, as a culture, we don’t work together was well as we used to.  Even with all the self-indulgent “gofundme” and crowdsourcing and ice-bucket appeals. Along these lines, on Sunday Michelle Singletary offered (in her “Get There” series), a perspective “The problem with crowdfunding: It doesn’t help the needy crowd”, link here. She writes “Even people who make poor decisions deserve help to lift them from poverty.” Vox has a similar article, which comes down to the idea that "luckier" people don't walk in the shoes of the less well off, by Danielle Kurtzleben, 
  
As a lot of us become more independent and less responsive to being approached, old-fashioned ways of selling and social interaction, which many people depend on, weaken.  The poor quality of most mass-emailed (spam or not) and telemarketed products and services attests to the loss of social capital, and the determination that comes from desperation.
  
Mayne the Amish really do understand some things.  Efficiency has its point of diminishing returns, if all human life really matters. 
    
Picture: Port Richmond, in Philadelphia, near Charles Murray’s favorite neightborbood, Fishtown, my trip.  


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Twitter admits it has a problem with abusers and sees no simple, reliable solutions yet; blocking "low follower counts" could backfire


Twitter is drawing heat on how it deals with abuse, particularly online stalkers (mostly of women) and, of course, terror propaganda, and recently, certain kinds of threats (as against airlines).  Vox (with its subsidiary “The Verge”) printed some comments where CEO Dick Costello admitted the company’s deficiencies in some flowery language, link here.  He says “we will kick these people off right and left …. And make sure nobody hears them.”  He admitted that the problems were costing the service legitimate users.

  
Eva Galperin and Nadia Kayyali write about this at Electronic Frontier Foundation, and suggest that Twitter could developed some more nuanced strategies for letting users block unwanted content (link ).  I think there is some capability now;  many users don’t allow non-followers to see their timelines or profile details (just like Facebook) and some users to reject specific followers.  Celebrities or those with professional accounts, however, usually remain public. 

A problem exists, however, in that some stalkers (or terrorists) will just keep creating different accounts from different servers and new names.  So EFF suggests letting users block new accounts or accounts with low follower counts, among other ideas.
  
I would be concerned about these proposals because of the “catch-22” that they could create.  They could make “popularity” essential to being heard at all, again.  You’d have to be established in the real world again, just like in pre-social media days (even pre-Internet).  Of course, there are those who think that we are losing the ability to work together in the real world for real causes and real people, because some of us don’t do very well with social hierarchies that demand popularity. 
  
 I would add that I get a lot of short-term spammy followers who then drop me in a day or two if I don't follow them.  I only follow parties that I am interested in, typically for some commonality that is relatively specific.  I often look at other public feeds without necessarily following them. 
   
Update: Feb 22

On Sunday, Michelle Goldberg talks about this problem for female writers with feminist messages, "An unbearable burden: Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire", link here. She talks particularly about writers published on xoJane. It seems that some men resent the idea that a female would not allow herself to be "available" to him, and mentality that is said to live on some campuses.  It also lives in undeveloped parts of the world, particularly with radical Islam.
Update: Feb. 23

The "Dummies" books has an advice page on how to detect "spam" followers in Twitter, link here. I see this all the time, a party that looks irrelevant to my content follows me and drops me in about two days, as I don't follow them back.  Some sites generate messages all the time. "Chess Quotes" generates left wing messages about the abusive bourgeois class and some silly but harmless "heterosexual" pictures, but sometime actually sends legitimate news stories, so I left it up! "Healthy Living" generated a lot of aphorisms that actually made sense, but then disappeared.
 
But the fact that spam-following happens a lot would also denigrate the idea that people should have minimum-follower counts, as that encourages and even rewards spam.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Bitcoin" has created conflicts for journalists who cover it


Late last night, I recorded and then watched Morgan Spurlock’s rather colorful report on Bitcoin, which I covered on my TV blog earlier today, staying up late on a kind of “nightcall” (related to unusual weather), having earlier watched some important stuff on NBC.  The report “inadvertently” brought up some issues in my own fiction writing which I’ll get to at a later time, and let me, again through some crazy coincidence chains, to revisit my own past history with “conflict of interest” a book author and journalist now myself. “Morgan!” did me good (and I don’t mean the British 60s comedy movie).
  
In canvasing Spurlock’s coverage, I looked up the piece by Timothy B. Lee about Bitcoin back in September, 2014, as he used to tweet about the subject a lot.  Now, I don’t often write about people that I have interacted with personally much on the blogs – for one thing, I’m starting to make more contacts about how to market my “Do Ask,, Do Tell” screenplay material, starting to make some progress, so I really can’t go into what is going on in public forums.  No one in a comparable situation could.  But I did meet Tim when I was living in Minneapolis, in 1998, when he was starting as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota.  In time, he would help arrange one of my public lectures about my (first) DADT book, on the U campus.  That was an interesting and rewarding time of my life, nestled in the Churchill Apartments, with access to downtown on the Skyway – and a lot went on all the time there.
  
My own move to Minneapolis as of September, 1997 had occurred as a corporate transfer (to ReliaStar in downtown Minneapolis, on that same Skyway), somewhat under-the-table, out of my concern that, having published a book that dealt with gays in the military, I might have a serious conflict at the Arlington location where there was a large focus at my workplace in selling insurance to military officers.  Given the moral tone of the debate during the Clinton years, my making a living that way seemed double-edged, to say the least. (I’ve covered this tone in my recent postings about “free riders”).
  
There was controversy over “COI” regarding Tim’s coverage in Vox.   Let me say I was a bit surprised to discover the “Controversy” today;  I hadn’t heard about it before, or had missed it.  (The term “Investiture Controversy” from European history pops into mind, although the parallel isn’t that much.) The Washington Post, where he had worked before, had prohibited reporters from investing in the bitcoin market if they wrote about it.  Vox had first thought it was OK, and then apologized after the criticism.  Ezra Klein has an article about the matter September 5, 2014 on Vox here.  Erik Wemple reported on the matter in the Washington Post Sept. 5 here . I can let the articles speak for themselves on the details, but I personally would not have thought that this would be a problem, if someone owned a small holding. 
  

Yet, there are many ramifications for something like this coming up.  Most journalists and bloggers would own assets and securities of some kind.  Bitcoin is controversial, but so would, say, my past holdings in oil companies (or the ownership of a gas well by relatives in the past).  Imagine what the left wing could make of that if I worked for Vox and wrote about climate change.  What if I worked there and wrote about inherited trusts now?   So I don’t think that normal, well-distributed small holdings in anything lawful should themselves be viewed as creating a conflict of interest.
        
Back in 1996, a reporter in Tacoma, WA was assigned to copy-editing after publicity over her activism as a lesbian.  At the time, the Washington State supreme court argued that her activism could be perceived as compromising her “objectivity” as a reporter.  Other firings and transfers have occurred, such as with a reporter who volunteered with ACT UP.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sustainable Freedom II: don't make enemies, either of nature or people


I’ve said before, one of the biggest interests for me is the moral environment for asymmetry: that is, how should people who know they are “different” be expected to behave, in a reasonably progressive society?  It’s one thing to have a list of aphorisms or platitudes (or as a friend in the early 1970s said, “inevitable epigrams”), it’s another to process specific challenges to one’s being able to stay on track in pursuing his own goals, especially when those goals are individualized apart from family.  (Forget the gender-neutral language;  this isn’t German, but we need another pronoun beside “its”,  maybe “shis”.)  By challenges, I mean external disruptions.  They can come from bad luck, from natural processes or disasters, or from the hostilities of others.
  
Of course, even when I am “allowed” to keep all the resources I have, I can mess up.  I can simply lack the talent I need, or turn lazy, careless.  I can be irresponsible, or even lack impulse control, out of OCD.  The moral questions around all these events are easily handled in libertarianism by normal ideas about personal responsibility.
  
But the idea of external challenges can become critical indeed to one’s outlook, at least mine. 
  
Because of the pressures put on me related to my lack of gender conformity when growing up, I tended to internalize the implied moral notions and apply them to others.  “Weaker” people were such because they were morally compromised.  I viewed people as I saw them.  “It is what it is.”  I didn’t make myself conscious of where a particular person had started in line in life.
  
The attitude is certainly understandable.  It was more than just meritocracy;  in earlier times, we needed every one to “do his part” and “pay his dues” with respect to risk taking (Feb 11).  The economic hierarchy suggested that some people were “better” than others. 
  
In today’s world, the media (including user-generated content on the Internet) publicize individual need a lot more than it did when I was growing up.  There is a lot more that can be done for some people than there used to be, especially medically.  But it would go for naught if the beneficiaries weren’t wanted as and valued as “people”.  Earlier eras had excused different stations in life and somehow pretended that “servants” (or slaves) were valued.   Later, even at the end of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, we lived with mandatory male conscription and a deferment system, implying that some lives are more valuable than others, almost Orwellian.  We know what evils came about – fascism.  Today, it would seem that an unwillingness to “provide value to others” in a personal way could gradually invite aspects of fascism again.
  
I all of this suggested what was so disturbing to some people about my presence in some living environments when I was younger, especially at William and Mary in 1961, and then as a “patient” at NIH in 1962.  I was clearly at a disadvantage in seeking “relationships” because I wasn’t “competitive”. Later, I would see myself as never having had the advantage of being “attractive” or “desirable”, even though I was better off economically – luckier—than a lot of people  But my presence seemed to be aimed at wanting others who happened to be even more challenged, to feel excluded from love and romance as “undeserving” of it if I was.  This was much less the case in the military a few years later because of the authoritarian atmosphere, concern over what might happen if ever deployed, and a genuine belief that there was a common enemy (Communism). Still, I ask, am I supposed to be responsible for how much confidence others have in themselves and their own relationships?  I also ask, sometimes when we talk about "victimless" acts, isn't the issue more that if something (which might be an omission as well as commission) is "all right", them common sustainability is imperiled? 
    
That influence can become disruptive indeed.  If people have to take risks for others, then the culture needs to welcome them, and they need to believe that they can find and keep spouses who will keep their passions intact even after hardship (as for battle).  The security of the community depends on it;  without that deep emotional solidarity, it can become more vulnerable to enemies, even in asymmetric situations, on the ground.  It wasn’t just about countries and ideologies and world domination on a political level; it could really be about people.
  
In the 60s, at NIH, my fantasies and attitudes tended to “leak” even though there was no such thing as “gatekeeperless” self-promotion as today.  But yet, the therapists and others tried to “get me to cough it up.”  Somehow, they wanted the reassurance that I would settle down, marry and reproduce;  that would take me off their backs and make them feel more secure themselves.
  
Today, one can “put it all out there.”  Prejudices toward people who “don’t have it” can come through in amateur or user generated content in tweets or movie reviews, and others can search for it and see what you’re all about.  We call that “online reputation” in part, today.  But it really existed in earlier times, too.
  
And in more modern times, I have come to see how vulnerable to “bad luck” any of us can be.  There are a myriad ways to be “less fortunate”, and it gets to the point that by the time one is an adult, others find he “isn’t any good”.  It’s very hard to catch up.  Again, we see what we see.
  
Yet, anytime a real horrific disaster threatens, I can imagine what it could be like.  The variety of imaginable calamities is endless – hurricanes, monster tornadoes, floods, supervolcanoes, earthquakes, solar storms, pandemics.  That’s to name the natural ones.  Even though I am less exposed to disaster where I am than a lot of people (I don’t live “On the Beach”, pun intended), I know “it can happen to anybody.”  Generally, I expect that if something happens, the system would work: insurance would kick in, and I would carry on in a hotel for a while.  But the system can fail anyone.  I could wind up dealing with people in a shelter like anyone else.  Yes, the idea sounds demeaning.  I should be better than that.  But I know none of us are.  I could certainly forced to “trade places” because of bad luck. 
  
So, insularity to the needs of others is dangerous, even if one (“I”, at least), doesn’t want to make the shortcomings of others “all right”.  I found out as a substitute teacher, and from all kinds of unsolicited appeals after “retirement”, how easily one can be ambushed and drawn into the worlds of others where I the past one would have been unwelcome.
  
I did come out of the whole layoff (end of 2001) and eldercare experience (end of 2010) much better off than a lot of people.  And, unlike an insect that I might swallow accidentally (Army joke from Ft. Eustis – “put it in The Proles”) I didn’t necessarily “earn” it (maybe if you’re Morgan Spurlock you can actually earn a bitcoin).  I can imagine that certain things could be expected of me.
    
First, I still want to reiterate, I want to finish all the “projects” I laid out.  Then whatever I “give” comes out of my own missions in life and “special” talents, and I’m not too concerned about the “moral statues” of the recipient.  Yes, in certain venues, I can “help people” in these areas now and that is fine.  But it gets into areas that are more basic. 
  
I can imagine, for example, that I could be expected to shelter people.  For example, look at the “political asylum” crisis coming in my own community – and right now there is a conspiracy not to talk about this publicly, for fear of bringing it on.  (I guess this blog post is obscure enough in the grand scheme of things.)  An old house (literally, as in a story on my media blog, here ) can be a burden – a lot can go wrong, unless a whole family is being raised there.  An other idea is simply reporting for community service, commandeered by the bureaucracy of others.  I’ve explained my objections to this before (like April 19, 2014).  As a sub, I ran into the issue of childcare, for someone never having been inclined to engage in a procreative act.  But I know of other men who do this, and seeing men who are other than conventional role models exhibit fathering skills sends a calming social message --- by action rather than words. Yet, I don;t find helping someone just on the basis of need (rather than by a match to my own talents) an acceptable "goal".  I can't accept the idea of making someone "all right" or being made "all right" myself after failure, even if it results from bad luck or someone else's wrongfully acted hostility (next).  (Yes, I do accept paying someone to change the oil or care for Mother, but that's "different".)  And that makes us all more vulnerable.  

One could add to the list of expectations, a willingness to replace fantasy with "real people" in relationships, when they "need" you.  One could revert to an old idea, that the ability to keep an intimate relationship and not run from it, based on gazing eyes, when the other partner runs into hardship, whether disease or actual conflict, is itself a character marker. 

Let's add, there's a real debate in progressive circles (like on some pieces on Vox Media):  does giving people money or taking them in (for shelter) help them?  Some say it really does and that allowing some expropriation is a moral obligation out of karma (whether that's based in a specific faith or not).  Other's say people should help themselves, that we have a meritocracy. No, I don't like the idea of being the backup when others fail.   The "free ride" problem has flip sides.  The compromise seems to have to do with engaging others personally in ways that might have been unwelcome in the past.  Paul Rosenfels (whom I've written about a lot elsewhere) would have called this really "creative." But it's really action, not talk. 

.
  

I do think there is something to all of this – seeing everyone “serve” and sometimes walk in the shoes of others – sending a message that “civilization” really matters.  That brings me to the other real other source of potential hardship – the hostility of others, even the making of enemies. (I was once warned about that specifically, on my very firsr job.)  That includes violence, whether physical (and brazen), legal, political, framing, or almost any form of coercion.  But a lot of people (especially young men) grow up with the notion that the rules of society and civility are for others, not them, because the rules work against them.  (Think, again, about the old military draft.)   Okay, this leads to the idea of “class warfare” and the indignation of the far left, which a few decades ago could get very personal and exhibited some asymmetry (like Patty Hearst) that we forget about today.  Today, we think of the main asymmetric threats as coming from “radical Islam” – which have the capacity of targeting individual civilians in western countries (right now, Europe more than the US) in a manner that seems unprecedented in history, although comparable domestic threats from Communism (and previously Nazism) were more serious than we realize (and certainly were so against some populations in the South over segregation).  These threats,  augmented by other issues (cyberwarfare from the former Communist block, including DPRK, Russia and China in different ways) have other ideological causes (including and “end times” fanatical religious ideology in some areas of militant Islam), but the idea that some people “get out of things” (as my mother used to put it) certainly adds kerosene to a dangerous mudroom.  I can somewhat understand the mentality of the doomsday preppers and "my own family first" -- civilization works, until it doesn't!  I would not be of any use in a post-technology world,  would not live (in the biological sense) much longer in it, didn't procreate (maybe a good thing then), and would wonder how that would bode for my next existence (as per the Monroe Institute).  

I do get the idea of not wanting to make someone whom I see as "flawed' seem "all right",  But a desire to be kept away from that, if evident to others, may set a bad example (if I'm responsible for the influence of my "example").  Religious fundamentalism makes it easy to stay away from the "not desirable" (again, as Army buddies understood this).  There is a slippery slope, or elevation decline, from personal aloofness to eventual authoritarianism, sometimes with its most horrific eventual practices. This separation -- from forgiveness and solidarity -- can also lead to someone's paying for the crimes of his attacker. It's just as real as if he had committed them himself, and it gets ugly. No one wants to play Job. 
         
Before 2000, I hadn't had to process external "threats" much since, say, college and Army days. Since 9/11, and recently, as some kinds of crime have become more brazen and possibly politically motivated,  In the asymmetric, Internet age the "making enemies" issue (along with "chilling effects")  has taken on a potentially personal aspect that seems historically unprecedented.  I've had to think about it more, as part of a bigger picture, given my "karma".  I am somewhat in a moral Goldilocks zone.  It's like living in the "Twilight Zone" of a tidally-locked planet with less free life on both the day and night sides making claims. There are more than two sides to most arguments. 
        
There's more on the endpoint of this on Wordpress, here. True, the idea of "victim" doesn't work for me.  You still are what you are.    

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sustainable freedom and my own innovation: If "it's free", then is "it" sustainable?


This is a last “strategic planning” post (maybe as "a film in two parts") before I delve into the next phase of my work as a new version of music software arrives very soon to support my own composition work, and I cover some loosely connected, but critical issues. This is something the late journalist Randy Shilts would call "a festival of the hearts". 
  
Let’s start with a USA Today story on Presidents’ Day by Jefferson Graham, “Who’s making money in digital music?”, link here. Yes, the iTunes 99-cent singles idea hasn’t worked out as well as hoped, and the article goes back to Shawn Fanning’s 1999 innovation of “Napster” as the start of an unsustainable trend, most recently getting the attention of Taylor Swift in her battle with Spotify.  A problem is that the public expects to see stuff “free” (as Reid Ewing satirized in his 3-part “Reid-ing” Web series about four years ago, “It’s Free”, which is beginning to sound like a phrase somebody will try to trademark).  I certainly am on the side of sustainable business models.  But I play a lot of free classical music on YouTube, and some of the postings come down (even after I comment on them, causing the postings to embed automatically on my Google+ social networking blog) for “copyright” violations of the posters or complaints from the record companies.  I’d pay for these, but I’d like to see them all available on MP3 so we can save them in the Cloud and not have to handle physical records and CD’s.  The record companies still don’t do enough to make this easy for the consumer.

Then there is a story on a Vancouver, BC site “How Aaron Swartz paved way for Jack Andraka’s revolutionary cancer test”. Jan. 30, 2013 link here.  Here the model is different.  Researchers need efficient access to other research work.  The whole mechanism behind JSTOR is clumsy and it seems people are having to pay for stuff in the public domain, although the need for scientific and academic journals to earn revenue from their publications sounds legitimate. 
  
All of this provides a background perspective on how I approached self-publishing.  Originally, I had expected my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book back in 1997 to sell by “word of mouth”.  In fact, it did for a while, until about the Y2K period.  But by the end of 1998, I had found that I could indeed attract more readers, and “be noticed” by putting the material up online for free, because the major search engines would index it with no further effort from me.  In time, page requests increased.  Some people bought the book, probably out of conscience.  But not that many.  I didn’t need to depend on the book to make a living, so what I was doing (“constructive public self-instantiation”, to borrow from OOP jargon)  was somewhat revolutionary at the time.  Merely by staying up and getting found, I could put a monkey wrench into one-sided partisanship.  I could, with passive activity (almost borrowing from an old concept for maintaining tax shelters) have a disproportionate influence on public debate, forcing critical thinking. I felt proud of having done this.

There is a paradox in the particular way I did this.  The argument of the first DADT book played on the paradox of moral debates on human rights.  While defending private lives and public speech (particularly on gay issues), I had was dealing with the idea that sustainable freedom only comes with some acceptance of socialization, with the need to put others first, sometimes, particularly in the area of shared sacrifice and particularly apportioned personal risk.  I developed this issue particularly over my experience with the military draft and deferment system during the Vietnam era.  The military ban and past draft issue became a kind of moral dipole or swirling baton.  Other issues (a lot of them, I called “conflict of interest”) built up around this. 

In time, especially after 9/11 and my “career ending” layoff at the end of 2001, when my “second career” became my writing, my eldercare responsibility, and managing accumulated capital and savings that reduced the need to work for someone else in the usual sense (yup, oil and gas bailed this family out, and some people think that makes us capitalist, planet-destroying pigs). But a disturbing idea developed:  I would have to accept “partisanship” if I had more responsibility for other people, especially kids (I was able to hire most of the help for Mother than I needed through third-party agencies).  My speech could actually interfere with helping other people, if I had to be more partial to their specific needs.  (Somehow, this reminds me of “Life of Pi” where Pi’s life on the boat becomes settled with providing for a tiger’s specific real needs, after training him, and releasing him free when they finally hit land.)  In a way a little analogous to the invention of Napster, I had done something not sustainable in the real world.  

So I may come across as a chatterbox or as "The Pharisee" in my story "The Ocelot the Way He Is". I set up a commentary mechanism where it becomes necessary to address everything conceivably relevant, to maintain objectivity.  Some may think they don't need to get the news from me, when there are professional sources, although the postings where I add some unusual perspective or insight, often based on personal experience, do seem to attract a lot of readers.  And, yes, in social media, I can sometimes fine tune who is likely to really read the message, at some loss of objectivity -- but necessary to move forward.  It is still troubling, that I don't find helping others who actually have "real needs" (adaptive) personally a "worthy" goal, at least if it meant redirection of the self and submission to the specific agendas of others.  



Update: Feb. 18

This video of a TED talk at the UN by Jack Andraka in late 2013 discusses the "open access" problem with research journals, starting at 9:18



Note that Andraka quotes Harvard University as saying that the old system of requiring a paywall to access research journals is unsustainable.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Facebook now allows a "dead hand" legacy contact; more on the "authentic names" requirement


Facebook is now providing a digital “dead hand” (to borrow from George Elliot novels), allowing you to control your account from beyond the grave, according to a NPR story by Roberto Baldwin, link here.  Facebook calls it a “legacy contact”. Google had announced an “Inactive Account Manager” for those who have become “worm food”, as Wired put it, here. Actually, one could wonder if someday a civilization will figure out how to retrieve a “time stamp” of you and let you continue living, in a sense, like in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”.
  
What surprises me is that service providers don’t require specification of an alternate if you’re indisposed a long time (illness, overseas travel to difficult areas).  
  
Russia actually has a “social network for the dead”, which may sound like a surprising idea for Putin, here. 

On another Facebook matter, Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that Facebook has migrated from a "real names" policy to "authentic names".  This had caught up some drag queens, especially, who had previously enjoyed more liberal policies on MySpace, but the "authentic" name is supposed to help.  But the notification process is abrupt and awkward.  EFF now reports that Native Americans are affected, because of the way they construct names from ordinary outdoor elements. The story by Nadia Kayyila is here