Tag Archives: Journalism

A few of my favorite ledes

In no particular order, and purposely without origin, I give you a collection of the beginnings of stories I have found compelling and masterful. (Please feel free to add any I should have here in comments.) Enjoy!

Gary Robinson died hungry.

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.

Sirhan S. Sirhan is nuts, nuts, nuts.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin.

Depression is the flaw in love.

This isn’t at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident, I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.

It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience.

All children, except one, grow up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a dark and stormy night.

All this happened, more or less.

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.

The University of Toledo gave President Frank Horton a pay increase yesterday. It was his first raise in nearly a month.

‘They hit a little girl,’ and in his muscular black arms the first specialist carried out a seven-year-old, long black hair and little earrings, staring eyes — eyes, her eyes are what froze themselves onto M’s memory, it seemed there was no white to those eyes, nothing but black ellipses like black goldfish. The child’s nose was bleeding — there was a hole in the back of her skull.

Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.

Kazbek Misikov stared at the bomb hanging above his family. It was a simple device, a plastic bucket packed with explosive paste, nails, and small metal balls. It weighed perhaps eight pounds. The existence of this bomb had become a central focus of his life. If it exploded, Kazbek knew, it would blast shrapnel into the heads of his wife and two sons, and into him as well, killing them all.

Let’s talk about tattoos.

Ella had to find out what had attacked her, and she wasn’t the only one.

The imperfect man pitched the perfect game.

Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.

If on the morrow we should lose to the Germans at our national game, fret not, lads, for twice in this century we have beaten them at theirs.

If you could stop rubbing your itchy, watery eyes for one second, put down the tissue and look around, you’d see an increasing number of sneezing, sniffling sad sacks just like you.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

At 12:30, my husband and I were having a pleasant lunch in a restaurant. At 1:30, we were back home, sitting at the kitchen counter planning a trip to Vienna and Budapest with cherished friends. At 2:30, I was walking out of the hospital emergency room in shock, a widow, my life changed forever, beyond comprehension.

Floridians are going to have to start pulling up their pants and stop having sex with animals soon.

President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a degree.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

Remarkable to Look Back

And sad. President Clinton was a impressively smart man, and in this interview he shows it off in spades, able to call to mind statistics and rationales for policies without any aid. He’s a statesman, in the most classic sense of the word. And Amy Goodman is a journalist, in the best sense of that word.

But I think what is most remarkable looking back on his words 13 years later, is that everything he talked about is worse, under both the Republicans and the Democrats. That the gains he crowed were illusory, the economy he pinned so many hopes on had been a pyramid balanced on its tip that could last only so long. The reforms to come he spoke of weren’t just abandoned by the opposition, but by his own party, after he had deferred them himself, always “waiting on reports.” Everything, every single point he made, however elegantly made by this most skilled of politicians and speakers, every course of action he talked about, has all ended in total failure. From ending racial profiling (which Hillary was working on in New York) to New York’s shameful Stop and Frisk, unemployment is of course ridiculously high, schools failing, racism worse, healthcare costs higher than ever, Mexico is a basket case, the private prison system has reinstated slavery largely based on race. Cuba is still under embargo. Since them we’ve gotten black sites, Gitmo, endless wars. We’ve gone from secretive banking corruption to openly refusing to enforce the law against the masters of our economy, who commit fraud routinely, while violently suppressing the growing dissent on the streets. The failure of this system is so total that only insanity can still profess faith in it.

And not only is Leonard Peltier still in jail, this Democratic president has matched his unprecedented secrecy and persecution of whistleblowers with absolutely no pardons.

Amy Goodman is still doing good work, though.

HOPE: the lost article

(Due to a few problems and confusions with timing submission and editing, this piece about the Next HOPE never ran at Gizmodo. It’s presented on my blog instead because… you know, why not? I almost never name my own articles, that’s my editor’s job. But I have names for them in my head, and this one was called:)

Scenes from a Hacker Conference

The Hotel Pennsylvania was packed the weekend of the The Next HOPE conference, full of New York’s summer tourists as well as hackers. But it’s wasn’t hard to tell the hackers apart from the civilians. They were the ones in all black– goth with funnier t-shirts and no make-up.

The look may have risen nearly to the level of self parody, but the enthusiasm was genuine. The vacationers were far outmatched for pure excitement. People were grinningly happy to be here. “This year was… the HOPE that people thought would never happen, but we’re still here despite the economic problems and other issues,” says founder and organizer Emmanuel Goldstein. “This was The Next HOPE. It was about renewal.”

HOPE stands for Hackers On Planet Earth. It was created by the community around 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, mainly by 2600’s co-founder, Emmanuel Goldstein, less well known as Eric Corley. It’s been going since 1994, every 3-2 years. The HOPE conferences are much more hacker conferences than computer security conferences, embracing an ethic and aesthetic that goes beyond security. “There are other conferences that relate on certain themes (to HOPE), but most don’t hit the politics/anarchy/hacking all at once. It’s actually a pretty rare combination,” says Aestetix, one of the conference organizers.

Goldstein has made the HOPE conferences by far the most European of the American hacker gatherings– a political event, with a worldview that exceeds the technical. American hackers have often taken the mantel of bad guy hooligans much more than their European counterparts, for whom defiance and transgression are seen as more righteous and politically active. European hackers have often swung socialist, the Americans, libertarian. Goldstein tries to be as inclusive as possible. “The idea is to get people to come out of it saying ‘that’s really something different and I had my mind opened,'” says Goldstein.

The talks ranged wildly, from coding to resist botnets to sex and food and a talk about how we perceive color. They are political, technical, scientific, social, and often funny. But one of the things people notice about the HOPE conferences is that they always bring the drama, and The Next Hope was no exception. This year featured a WikiLeaks keynote that brought out federal agents looking to question Julian Assange, and the public appearance of Adrian Lamo, with whom WikiLeaks has been in an embarrassing public pissing match over the case of alleged leaker Bradley Manning.

“As annoying as drama can be to watch unfold, it’s also really exciting. I think general news stories follow the same line, drama sells,” said Aestetix, and the organizers weren’t shy about playing up the drama.

Goldstein took the podium in front of a packed room for the WikiLeaks keynote. Goldstein is a middle aged man with a soft, welcoming face. He looks like a man perpetually ready for a backyard BBQ. A two minute hate of this Emmanuel Goldstein would feel like chewing out a favorite uncle. He looked over the crowd with a grin. “Everyone having fun?” The audience cheered. “Alright. There’s a lot of feds here. I don’t understand it. There’s all this interest in the conference this year for some reason. So hi, how are you doing?” He laughed, and went on to introduce Jake Appelbaum in the place of Julian Assange.

(Photo credit to Jake Appelbaum. Yes, the same Jake Appelbaum.)

The next day he brought Lamo to the stage to defend himself, admonishing the hackers to listen to the same man he’d castigated the day before. Lamo did a remarkable job, and the tense room broke partly for him. Even his opponents conceded he’d displayed the kind of courage hackers value over almost anything else. As Lamo walked out of the hotel, one of the attendees called him a bastard. He then grinned and laughed, and added “You’ve got balls, though.”

Beyond the talks, drama, and clothing choices there’s the touches that are unique to HOPE. What passed for an expo floor at the Next HOPE really wasn’t. The most capitalist of the booths were the little businesses like SecuritySnobs.com, selling fancy padlocks alongside lockpicking kits, and Adafruit industries, which sells kits and supplies for electronics hacking. There was a hackerspace village with tables laid out with soldering irons for whoever needs them. Off to the side 8 bit DJs blasted unexpectedly good music, music that found its form within the constraint. Beyond that a lockpicking area, and a Segway track. Right in the middle of the floor boxes of imported Club Mate were stacked nearly to the ceiling in an unlikely cardboard tower. Like so much of HOPE, 2600, and the hacker scene in general, it had the feel of an impractical solution undertaken just to see if it could be done.

You can’t really get the feel of the event without talking about the Club Mate, a vile German caffeine drink based on the South American yerba maté plant. The drink became popular with American hackers after being imported at the Last Hope by 2600. It’s everywhere, and people refer to it constantly. “Have you had your Club Mate?” Speakers admonish their audiences. It’s thrust into my hands by a conference organizer. I thrust it into someone else’s hand. It may be hacker vitamins, but it tastes like sucking on a pill. I’d rather have a meth habit. Even the brewer, Loscher, acknowledges that it’s an acquired taste. The 2600 store ships it around the country, “supplying various hacker spaces with pallets of the stuff” according to the website.

I wandered over to see the lockpicking area gatherimg a crowd. There was competition going on, and a team finishing up. This was the the Defiant Lockpick Challenge (Named for the 1958 movie the Defiant Ones). Two people form a team, bringing their personal lockpicks. They’re given a box and five minutes, and handcuffed together awkwardly. The timer starts, and they pick the box open. Inside are eight padlocks, four pairs, for the contestants. They can pick the cuffs and escape from them at any time, but that’s the last lock they’re allowed to pick.

The next team was two men in black t-shirts, one with a black fedora to match. Time was called, and they worked frantically. Fedora was seated, his team mate hunched over the table across from him. The box was easy, but the locks inside vary from easy to much harder, and it wasn’t apparent which were the easy locks.

They were mostly quiet except for the sounds of the picks, their badges knocking against the table, and the occasional yell and crash of a lock thrown against the table when they got one. It’s surprising how enthralling lockpicking can be to watch. It was tense, and the concentration seemed like a palatable force emanating from their table. The crowd grew as they went along, complete with photographers circling around the contestants. Four locks, five locks, they’ve gone through them faster than anyone before them, the event announcer told us. But they were getting to the hard ones. The hunched over man picked his way out of the handcuffs first, and watches while his loosened companion settles into a final pick. Fedora was still seated, left hand completely covers a padlock, with an index finger gently pushing a torsion wrench at the base of the keyhole while he raked across pins with his right cuffed hand. His partner inserted a shim into the handcuff still on him, and waited. The time was nearly up. People in the crowd, along with an announcer, began counting down. Some held their breath. The man in the fedora popped the last padlock, and in nearly the same motion, his partner popped the cuff off his arm.

Everyone burst into relieved applause while the partners threw their arms to the ceiling in triumphant Vees. They’d won by one lock. Generally lockpicking for fun is called locksports largely to avoid trouble with the law, but here it lived up to the moniker.

Later, when the organizers are closing the conference Goldstein fields screams from the audience to make the conference annual. It’s been a success. Goldstein points out to me later that despite holding a conference with several thousand attendees who pride themselves on being transgressive, and refusing to set up explicit rules, there wasn’t a single incident over the weekend. “Our crowd has always been fairly mature. There’s immature people of course, but they’re drowned out by the mature community around them,” he says. “If you treat people like adults then they’ll act like adults”

Goldstein’s been there from the beginning, and he sees the community getting more complex. It’s more inclusive of women, politics, and dissent than it once was. “It’s a strange community to gauge,” he says, “Is a hacker anyone that says they’re a hacker? If we included everyone that called themselves hackers, I’d say we’ve grown up. We’re talking abut a lot of things we weren’t talking about 10-15 years ago. We have a wider net around what defines us.”

New Years Day: Things I have learned in the last ten years

Most of the things I learned in the last ten years (like perl, what the hippocampus does, or how to build a ring flash) aren’t very useful to most people. But I learned many amazing, terrible, and funny lessons this last decade about the nature and doings of humans. Here are some, and may you come by this knowledge easier than I did.

  • Busy is not the same thing as important, but it can sure seem that way
  • If you want to see the future, don’t look at how people are using technology. Search out how they’re misusing it
  • All people substitute belief for reality sometimes, and waste their time arguing with what is happening to them. Some people do this with business, some politics, some relationships, and some physics. This is how you get speculative bubbles, wars without end, horrendous breakups, and Darwin awards.
  • The things you actively think will never happen to you are much more likely to happen to you than the things you just never considered at all.
  • Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean the business world isn’t insane and stupid. It really is.
  • Cultures can have nightmares. A Whole society can become sick, It can roil in somatic pain as its own subconscious tortures it. History records these times with confusion. They are disturbing and inexplicable moments that don’t seem to have a real cause. They’re no fun to live through, and living through them gives you no more insight than looking back on them. You just hope to get to the other side.
  • Compassion, even for the very worst, costs nothing and opens up possibilities.
  • It may be possible to forgive absolutely anything, and it may be necessary in order to survive. But to say you forgive someone before you can is a lie.
  • Ten years ago I thought there was no such thing as a free lunch. But actually, they’re all free. “The sun pays all the bills.”
  • I’ve been to Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, islands in the Caribbean, the Pacific, nations and states of wildly varying wealth and culture. Africa is different. Everywhere you go changes you, but Africa changes everything.
  • Dreams can creep up on you and come true while you’re doing other things.
  • Power and status are not as correlated with good decision making as I had hoped.
  • You can’t love away illness.
  • Some technologies will change your whole life for the better without you noticing, like text messaging, GPS, or spellcheck. Some will disrupt your life in ways you have no tools at all for dealing with, like the web vs newspapers or filesharing vs music labels, or when automatic spellcheck likes to correct your typos to say ‘incest’ when you meant to type ‘insect’.
  • In the tech world you don’t have the luxury of believing your preferences. When you run up against a technology you don’t like, you have to figure out why you’re wrong. When you come up against one you love, you still have to figure out why you’re wrong.
  • Storing a good collection of maxims, aphorisms, and proverbs in your head can actually get you through a lot.
  • Most people explain their faults upfront, but it’s very hard to hear them while it will still make a difference.
  • Ten years ago, I was in favor of Brinworld- radical transparency. Now my views are moderated, more complex. I thought it would usher in an age of tolerance, but I’ve learned that people can hold double standards in their heads I have no theory of mind for. But more importantly, I learned that privacy is vital for creativity. We need safe places to think strange thoughts. Sometimes they are what embarrass us, waste our time, or sink us to our lowest depths, but they are also the seeds of new worlds.
  • People are about as smart as you tell them they are.
  • You’re all geniuses.
  • I never understood the capacity for addiction before I had my daughter. Now I’m pretty sure drugs and alcohol are just taking over the same circuits in addicts that would make me do anything for her.
  • Humans have terrible memories. Most of the time, memories are just stories we make up about the past to explain how we see ourselves now. But memory is quite useful this way, and takes on an almost literary truth to make up for its factual error. However, it’s no way to measure or understand how we change over time, and it’s worthless for figuring out what happened.
  • I have killed far too many ideas for being born infants instead of springing fully formed and battle ready from my forehead.
  • There are people that just use a huge amount of toilet paper, and they seem to have nothing else in common, not bowel diseases or hygiene or so on. I have no idea what the hell they are doing with it. Perhaps that’s for the next 10 years.
  • 30 is a great age, when you can start to relax and get some perspective.
  • Graphic novels seem to make pretty good movies.
  • Becoming an expert is the delightful process of learning enough to understand far less of your field of endeavor than you did when you started. These days it’s practically my main signal I am getting somewhere- a sense of my grain of knowledge in an ever widening sea of my ignorance.
  • Whatever constraints, limits, or rules you come up with for humanity, there’s someone out there breaking them. And there’s a decent chance they’re blogging it.
  • When humanity communicates instantaneously over vast distances and across all cultural and national boundaries, there’s almost nothing we can’t turn into porn. But it turns out porn isn’t the end of the world.
  • Democracy doesn’t work very well anymore, if it ever did. The models I was given for how politics and policy work were completely false.
  • The founding fathers were a bickering pack who largely hated each other. They spanned the political and cultural spectrum, and universally agreed on exactly nothing. They were rich, they were poor, they were monarchists, anarchists, aristocrats and demagogues. There were some saints and heros, but there were some downright evil people, and there were a few that were all of the above.
  • This makes me wonder how the founders of the global network will be seen by history.
  • Writing a first book is one of the hardest things a person can do.
  • Minor tragedies always remain tragedies, but major ones can go either way.
  • Most of the easy problems have been solved. The ones that look easy are hiding the most terrible complexities.
  • Institutions are made entirely of humans, and all that implies.
  • It is easy to forget that unsustainable things can’t go one forever, because you expect them to start failing as soon as you realize they are unsustainable. Instead I have found that stupid things can go on much longer than I thought they could.
  • Unsustainable things are still unsustainable.
  • Torturer, tortured, trainer, trainee, conqueror, conquered, these are all misleading distinctions. No one really comes back out of those rooms.
  • You will likely reach a point when it seems life is not really your own, when it is filled with career, interests, family, obligations, and things. It will be so architected, so set, you will believe you are trapped. You’re not. You can walk out anytime.

Text from 5mof: How to open a vein.

(Still planning to work on this talk, but here is the first iteration, as presented to Noisebridge earlier this evening. Video should be available in the coming months.)

Hi my name is Quinn, I’m a writer, I write everyday. Some days more than others.

I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. That’s impossible in five minutes.

There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes.

First off- writing is a risky business. More than you realize. When I say I’m a writer I mean I’m a thrill seeker in emotional hellholes. I’m like Steve Irwin but for the inner demons of humanity instead of crocodiles. There’s a reasons so many of us drink ourselves to death and eat gun barrels.

But let’s say you still want to write. What does it mean to open a vein? To explain it without doing is kind of impractical, but let’s call it caring so hard that you use words to force other people to care, often against their will.

Meet the enemy: the blank page.

The page is an impenetrable barrier, and we writers spend our lives trying to tear it down to get to you and hide behind it all at once. This is why we’re kind of nuts.

Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part all we really ever have of each other.

Seeing as I am a writer, I have all sorts of complex writing tricks. I can make text sing, I can make it dance, I can obfuscate and explicate in even parts. None of that matters if I don’t care about my topic. You will be able to tell.

Another warning: When you are doing it right, when you are writing from your heart, it will never be good enough. There’s not a point where it’s finished, there’s a point where you can’t go on.

So what is writing from the heart, writing in your own blood? It is saying what you mean because nothing less will do, and nothing less will help. It’s always expressing out of desperation. Because you need them to know.

Here’s a list of motivations for writing that don’t make very good writing. This makes you boring, so boring usually you know somewhere in your heart that you are boring. And we all do this. We all do this most of the time. <slide>

But lets turn that on it’s head and see the reasons that make you bleed.

…wanting to get the things out of you before they eat your head, wanting your mother to love you, wanting to know for sure that you really exist, wanting to not die of the shame of knowing your mediocrity wasted the precious and finite moments of the lives of those you love, or even that you hate, or only believing you lived when you look back and see your bootprints on the hearts of as many people as possible…

It’s telling the naked story of why you care.

You’d think it’s something that takes a long time to do, that you fret over every word. But consider how you’d tell someone you loved they were in danger. It’s precise, it’s tight, it’s not more than you need and sure as hell not less.

It’s running 26 miles to declare ‘We have won.’ and then falling dead. (That guy knew how to punctuate.)

Another warning: You can write about it or you can talk it out- talking out your feelings and verbally telling your stories is great for productive group therapy, not so good if you want to write about it. I need both, so I’m learning to write first.

If you think this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it probably applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good, it has a bit. It’s there whenever you care.

Consider this opening about plate tectonics:

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

My editor for years at wired, Kevin Poulsen, helped me find how to convey what I cared about, and therefore make you care as well. It’s a lot about trust. When I don’t bleed on the paper It’s because I don’t trust you the audience to get it, won’t trust you with my pearls, my heart, or to understand the importance of my arcane knowledge. It’s arrogant as well, to think you cannot possibly get the stuff in my head.

Here’s the beginning of a piece on software defined radio, where you might not think you’d find my heart, but it’s there:

Matt Ettus has the sly smile of someone who sees the invisible. His hands fly over the boards of his Universal Software Radio Peripheral, or USRP, snapping them together with an antenna like Lego bricks. Then he plugs in the naked boards to a USB 2 cable snaking to his Linux laptop.

After few minutes of normal Linux messing around (“Takes forever to boot…. Haven’t got the sound driver working yet….”) he turns the laptop around to reveal a set of vibrating lines in humps and dips across the screen, like a wildly shaking wireframe mountain range. “Here,” he explains, “I’m grabbing FM.”

“All of it?” I ask.

“All of it,” he says. I’m suddenly glad the soundcard isn’t working.”

Radio is that bit of the electromagnetic spectrum that sits between brain waves and daylight. It’s made of the same stuff that composes light, color, electrical hums, gamma radiation from atom bombs, the microwaves that reheat your pizza.

So if you want to write, if you want to really write, ask yourself, why do I care? Why is this important enough to risk humiliation, ridicule, hope, life, love and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care.

Tab Dump

Slate presents BuyOneAnyway: “For just pennies a day you can cloth, feed and shelter newspaper professionals.”

One of the things that makes our species great isn’t self awareness, it’s that we’re aware of other species. Sometimes we do something so cool with that awareness I am left gawping, but with delight this time. “Scientists draw ancient squid using its own 150 million-year-old ink

5 Myths About Health Care Around the World. One of the best and most lucid pieces about how healthcare really works, in the places where it does work.

Tab dump

  • King Kaufman scathingly replies to the above: We must kill press freedom to save it. I guess the most fun part of watching a replaying of the RIAA, MPAA, and (to a lesser extent) TV wars it this time the writing is much better.
  • YADFWI. (Yet another DFW interview) This one while he was writing IJ, and expresses something I’ve never been able to express myself about why I think utilitarianism is quite possibly evil. He also gave me better ways to talk about Wittgenstein. And express that poetry is the opposite of logical positivism. God, just go read it

Newspapers vs Journalism: legislation and special pleading

The Brothers Marburger want to rewrite copyright law to save newspapers, and thereby, journalism. They want “aggregators” to pay “newspapers” for linking to/summarizing their pieces, and they want to bar “aggregators” from “profiting” from the articles “belonging” to a “newspaper” for 24 hours after posting. Quotes here are mine, to convey that none of these words mean anything particularly precise. There’s so much to take apart here, I’m stymied as to where to begin.

One thing I should admit upfront is that I have never in my life subscribed to a newspaper. My mother did for a while. I was in one, the Evening Outlook in Santa Monica as a kid, and I liked that. But not only did I rarely read them, when I did it was mostly the comics and the stock prices1. There’s a simple physical reason- I hate the way the paper and ink feel on my skin. Cheap newsprint on my fingers acts on my nervous system like finger nails on a chalk board. I hate hate hate slightly slightly greasy, slightly crumbly texture, and the way it comes off on my hands, making them feel dirty, dried out, and oily all at once. Just talking about it makes me want to wash my hands.

But boy did I always love the idea of journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer and journalist when I grew up pretty much from the 3rd grade. Knew. (Why I didn’t start until I was in my 30s is another long and at times troublesome story) For both dermatological and career/personal reasons, the coming of the web opened the door to my first desire. I left what was shaping up to be a lucrative career in interface design to become a freelance writer.

Some friends expressed their confusion; I was jumping off the Queen Mary onto a barge that was not only skanky, but as far as anyone could tell, already actually on fire. 2005/6 was a hell of a time to declare oneself for journalism. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, though I interviewed once at the Chron. I was told ‘morale is very low’ during the interview, for which I had no pithy reply. A few moments later I admitted that I read my news off Google News. I didn’t get the job. When I was asked later by a Reuters guy why the hell I’d gone for that interview, I told him I kind of wanted to work in a newspaper’s newsroom before they all went away, and I figured that was one of my last chances. He laughed the hard laugh of the bitter and damned, and asked if he could quote me.

People have wondered why I’m not more scared, and the short answer is this: I’m not an employee. I’m a well, a mine. Whatever else gets lost or shuffled, I’m necessary. I can interview, investigate, learn, and then explain. I can write and take pictures. I can give you whatever form you want for those final productions, I don’t care that much. Like the musician and the auteur, I am the natural resource that becomes the product in the hands of an industry. Wherever you put me, however much you pay me, whatever my outlet, I’m still a journalist.

Just like the RIAA isn’t actually trying to save the art form of music, and the MPAA isn’t trying to save the filmic expression, Newspaper people aren’t trying to save journalism. Sometimes the people aligned with these organizations know this, and argue instead for the value their particular infrastructures add to those fields. Those more respectable arguments I can appreciate even when I don’t completely agree.

In an interview I did years ago with Monique Wadsted of the Swedish bit of the MPA (The MPAA’s wee international bit) she argued that in the long run uncontrolled piracy could threaten the huge budget productions that we enjoy. She has a point- a flattened marketplace may not have the investment capital to pour into a yearly summer blockbuster season that costs as much as a small nation’s GDP. I am not actually being flippant here. I love summer blockbuster season. I love the enormous spectacle of the things, their ridiculous scale, comic book motifs and the jewel tone richness. I’m glad we make them, the same way I’m glad people thousands of years ago made the pyramids. But I don’t confuse the pyramids with all building, or Hollywood productions with all cinematic expression.

It seems like every time someone argues for tightening copyright to protect their industry, they conflate their industry with their field of endeavor. But it’s newspapers that are the absolute worst offenders here. Newspapers, newspaper people contend, are the only authoritative source of journalism, the only trustworthy arbiters, the only stalwart defenders democracy can trust. For the sake of our soul as a nation the laws must be changed to ensure the survival of their business model. This argument has the kind of conflict of interest and special pleading that gets journalist salivating, when it’s not about the people that sign their checks.

Some are salivating anyway, like my friend just this guy I happen to know, no friendship stuff or anything, King Kaufman at Salon. He co-writes the Future of Journalism blog, which can be ungentle, at times, with the blithering idiots.

There’s a form of the argument against amending the laws that doesn’t apply to the RIAA or MPAA, which is that newspapers were shitty at their sacred duty. Bill Wyman lays this out very nicely- that the business incentives all pointed towards not upsetting or offending anyone, which kind of runs counter to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Newspapers did come to play it safe, and safe became more important in many cases than right. As Lore pointed out, “No one ever got fired for installing an evil Microsoft product.” Part of the problem was also biological structural: primates don’t like getting yelled at and avoid it. There are a few that by some accident aren’t too put off by this, and they do often become journalists. They don’t often become managers, even the ones that work at papers.

There’s an argument newspapers were compromised by media consolidation and therefore don’t deserve the protections they seek. These are interesting arguments, and should probably get lots and lots of blah blah blah Inside Journo Baseball. But I don’t actually care about them. Even if they did everything right I don’t want to see newspaper’s special pleading succeed. There’s no reason it has to be them doing it in the future, that journalism has to look like it did in the past.

That there is something good in an existing institution isn’t enough. It has to be better than what we gain when we lose it. For instance, there are a lot of things we might gain from perfect DRM, but creating perfect DRM would require outlawing and destroying the general purpose computer. No contest- we’ll live without.

What the brothers Marburger would ask the world to give up is the fast linking and commentary of the internet, and the diversity of talents outside of corporate newspapers becoming the watchdogs of society. They would also ask the world to give up a lot of reporting, and some of the power media has to afflict the comfortable.

Scandals would be far easier to get out in front of if news spreading is slowed by copyright restrictions. I can get my side of the story out to as many aggregators and blogs as possible, your side has to wait 24 hours. Is an aggregator still an aggregator if it does original reporting or commentary? There aren’t many that don’t. Is WaPo still a paper when it blogs, quotes, and links? Do I get to sue them if they link to and reproduce this post before a day has passed? More news stories then ever are bubbling up from on-site amateurs, will this law protect them? From what? If several people are all working on the same story, does only the first one get to publish? Does it depend on how much one’s employer looks like an aggregator vs newspaper? If so, what incentive does anyone have to take a little extra time to get it right? If I want to make sure a story never really can be written about, can I “register” somewhere as a paper and write about it every 24 hours? What about international sources, are they to be protected/embargoed? If I put my aggregator in Latvia, but live in NYC and take adverts from Google, what are you going to do? What about when the whole situation is reversed, as in the case of Global Voices2?

And all of this might not even save newspapers, even while the damage to journalism would be intolerable. And I like journalism more.

1 Mom’s requirement. I have the distinction of being the only person I know that knew how to read the financial papers, operate several kinds of firearms, hide illegal drugs on my person, relate and analyze good portions of Greek mythology, and identify and sabotage a distributor cap by around age 10. My parents were never, ever boring.

2 GV is pure and simple, simpler than most, a blog aggregator. When it studied its readership, it found that a very high number of people reading were journalists, and most of them admitted they’d gotten stories from GV and written about them in ‘legitimate’ news outlets. One of those journalists was me. Thanks, Global Voices! Please don’t sue me for the thing you kind of wanted me to do! Oh this has gotten so confusing.

Tab Dump

  • From the wonderful and ever surprising Carl Malamud, audio of TS Elliot Himself reading the Wasteland. Other than all the talk about copyright, it’s something else to here it from the author. I felt like I could understand it in a new way.
  • Matt Taibbi, who is normally at his finest when Savaging Thomas Friedman, has found something even better to savage- Goldman Sachs. He continues with a piece about Goldman Sachs gaming the TARP. In my fantasy, Taibbi testifies a lot for a new version of the Pecora Commission.

Tab dump

I was considering writing a whole post about this, but I’ll sum up: if, impossibly, she were to get her way I’d want to be a corrupt gov’t official or amoral story thief. I could get out of front of any scoop newspapers ever had, just by spreading around my story under something like a CC license while theirs was in its new copyright prison. An information spreading source that thinks it will benefit by keeping its information locked up is very funny.

I might be able to give some insight into this question, but I choose not to.

Watching Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell argue makes me dizzy in a way only reading something rigorously peer reviewed can help.

I’ve thought about it, and decided I can live with that. I’m a brave girl.

More anti-news about how our lack of single payer or state run healthcare is making us poor as well as sick. Given the global financial crisis, it’s making everyone else poor too.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding hate for my home state’s system of direct democracy. It’s ruined the schools, taken away civil rights, and is at this point bankrupting the state.

Yes, me too. Ok?