Tag Archives: politics in america

What Gov 2.0 is making me think

I think we are getting enough examples of what the internet does to things back in the real world to start extracting some possibly slightly predictive behavioral patterns.

The one I think is really important for .gov is that the internet eventually destroys institutions whose main purpose was physical mediation of otherwise interested but unconnected parties. Over time, those middle layers will simply go away. They have to, because they are transformed (through no fault of their own) from conduit to barrier. The transformer is environmental- the internet is kind of ice-9 that way. But this is not a binary, smooth, fast, or simple transition, and the people in the middle of it are understandably confused and angry.

This is why record companies and newspapers are pissed off and pissing other people off that can’t figure out why they won’t just cease to exist. This is painful and hard. This is so painful and so hard that we have an aversion to seeing which institutions are next. Physical mediation is a good starting point to think about it: so what parts of governments exist to physically deliver something that can be described as information? Those parts will eventually go away. They can go away gracefully, or they can not go away gracefully. Government has a possibly unique ability to make that transition as non graceful as possible, but I doubt even it has the power to stop the process altogether.

When I first consulted with all sorts of companies in 1995 about their very first web pages, every one of them did a variation of the same thing: put their catalog or brochures on the web! How cool is that! Not actually that cool, I tried to humbly suggest. “The net,” I said repeatedly until my coworkers were ready to hurl, “is a conversation.” Many of these companies and organizations had never really conversed with anyone connected to them. It never had come up. Learning what that meant is each case has made the last 13 years completely fascinating.

I feel a little like the database fetishism I am seeing is a version of the catalog idea. There is nothing wrong with putting your catalog online, but it’s a serious misunderstanding of the net to think that the net is going to let you do the same thing as printing out all your data and sending it to everyone in the world, only without paying for postage. To explain how it’s different I’m going to dodge the question by hiding behind Tolstoy- pre-internet institutions are all alike, post-internet institutions are structurally disrupted in their own ways.

Like stages of grief, we need to figure out the stages of internet integration for institutions. I suspect grief is in there.

More as my head breaks.

1000 Ledes: n + 12: The Woman Looking After You

Wendy lost her insurance providing job because urgent surgery was going to require that she miss work. She was invited to quit, and thereby avoid being fired. Insurance paid only about 20% of her surgery costs, the rest was to come out of her suddenly non-existent income. Washington state won’t provide her with insurance- she’s not quite old enough and she isn’t disabled. Cobra was far too expensive.

Her new part time job doesn’t offer insurance. She hopes to not get sick again.

The kicker is that Wendy is a CNA- Certified Nursing Assistant. She provides hospice care, often in the homes of the terminally ill. There she looks after her patients, not just medically. She laughs with them, listens to their stories, helps them get out of the house, sometimes makes their favorite foods.

In short, she gives them the excellent care that our society has chosen to deny to her.

So close and yet so far away

Ted Kennedy, who has fought so hard for healthcare reform, has died on the eve of the big battle. Aside from the damage to this cause which is closer to my heart than I can often handle, I am struck by the desperation of the timing. How awful to go at this moment.

I wonder tonight how many more lives that might cost in the coming years.

Rest in Peace, Senator Kennedy.

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.

Dual marketing

Ever since my days of developing fast cal/oz/$ estimates at the Safeway on Santa Monica Ave in an attempt to keep myself, physiologically speaking, a going concern, I have been suspicious of the way pet food gets labeled. Today I grabbed a can of my wonderful hostess’ canned food for her cat. I delivered half to the dish on the floor, and caught sight of the name- Grammy’s Pot Pie. Pot pie? When did cats get so into pastry? When did Grammy start including the mellow white meat of mice in her dishes? In short, WTF?

I know the theory- anthropomorphizing pet food is yet another way to separate middle class suckers from their yuppie food stamps. It makes well heeled pet owners feel that if they really loved their pets they’d buy them all the food an omnivore could ever want, despite most house pets complete lack of an omnivoracious digestive system.

I always thought there was more to it than that. Part of it was the suckers, sure, but I’ve always thought it was a brilliant case of (admittedly grim) dual marketing. Beginning in the late Reagan era’s special treatment for the poor the way pet food was presented seemed to be changing. High calorie count? Low glycemic index? Vitamin additives, and a label with a picture of a Thanksgiving meal on it? What more could a septuagenarian on a social security fixed income ask for? Pet food is suspiciously labeled for human consumption, and humans do consume it. Why not compete for that market segment?

If you think this is too bleak to be the case, and I am ridiculous and paranoid for thinking it, I present Grammy’s Pot Pie, Smaller Serving Size 5.5oz.

The smell of Grammy’s house and her famous chicken pot pie is an unforgettable comfort. Our family loves dogs and we thought it was about time to share this great taste with yours. These tender chunks of chicken are sure to make your dog beg to go to Grammy’s, even if they have to eat their vegetables. Grammy’s Pot Pie is prepared with Chicken, Red Jacket New Potatoes, Carrots, Snow Peas, & Red Apples.

Guaranteed Analysis
Crude Protein (Min.) 9.00%
Crude Fat (Min.) 4.00%
Crude Fiber (Max.) 1.00%
Moisture (Max.) 81.00%

Calorie Content
1045 kcal/kg – A 13.2 oz. can provides 394 kcal of metabolizable energy, calculated value.

Chicken, Chicken Broth, Chicken Liver, Fresh Red Jacket New Potatoes, Fresh Carrots, Fresh Snow Peas, Fresh Red Delicious Apple, Potato Starch-modified, Olive Oil, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, Flax Seed Oil (For Omega -3), Natural Caramel Color, Poultry Seasoning (Thyme, Sage, Rosemary), Yucca Schidigera Extract, Choline Chloride, Salt, Lecithin, Zinc Amino Acid Complex, Mixed Tocopherols, Iron Amino Acid Complex, Vitamin E Supplement, Manganese Amino Acid Complex,Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin A Acetate, Copper Amino Acid Complex, d-Calcium Pantothenate,Vitamin D3 Supplement, Niacin, Riboflavin Supplement, Biotin, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Thiamine Mononitrate, Sodium Selenite.

Grammy’s Pot Pie is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food nutrient profiles for all life stages

This is one of the more, I feel, conclusive examples of the genre. I don’t even think it’s that horrible, if the labels are even close to accurate. If poor people are stuck eating pet food, I am hoping the ones that can afford the slightly more expensive pet food are getting the advertised nutritional value. But I do hope that we can remember that this is speaking to more than one demographic.

The things we all know and won’t say about copyright laws

We argue at length about all sorts of issues- time shifting, format shifting, sharing with friends, remixing, fair use, file sharing, blah blah blah. I get questions all the time in person and in mail, about points of IP law. I try and head them off quickly with the IANAL1 declaration, but usually it turns out I do know the answer. Most people’s questions regarding copyright law are pretty simple and settled issues. (Not all. Sometimes I know the answer, but it’s “Nobody knows!”. Points of copyright law are much like subatomic physics in that way, in that they exist in probabilities more than realities until they get interpreted by a court.)(That’s one of my surefire metaphors. Explaining “A ninth circuit decision collapses the Schrödinger wavefunction of a law!” really clarifies things, don’t it?)

The problem is there’s a big difference between telling you what’s illegal and telling you what not to do. Unlike most criminal law, IP law requires that the holder of the right go to the trouble of initiating a suit. If they don’t want to sue, you can “LA LA LA!” to their tune on national TV, wearing their trademarks over your naughty bits, while building their patented bicycle, selling it and encouraging everyone else to do it, too, without ever having a spot of trouble with the authorities. All those things are still illegal, highly illegal, but nobody is going to do anything to stop you.

This leads to a cultural dissonance. Is it illegal to rip your DVD of the Aristocats? You betcha. Is it wrong? Fuck, I don’t know or even care, to be honest. Is anyone going to sue you over it? No, no, no.

The truth about most copyright questions is this: no one cares if you break the law. This is not an answer lawyers can give you, and for the most part people aren’t sure enough of the law themselves to say it. I can, though. Include a picture in your high school report, rip your DVDs, give audiobooks to friends (while keeping a copy, you scoundrel!) or put up your first, horrific, 20 song Michael Jackson mashup on your website. You don’t need settled law because no one is ever ever going to sue you. Even the RIAA suits, already more rare than dying in a catastrophic freak accident2, were never directed at downloaders. Let me be redundant here- No one was ever sued by the RIAA for downloading any amount of music. That’s because they know these things, too. Some copyright violations are simply too ingrained to ever be pursued. Outlawing music sharing between friends is like outlawing the blowjob… good luck with that.

This is why copyright law is so icky these days- it’s totally disconnected with the culture. It’s not even really oppressive much of the time. It has this feel of thought crime because it’s so pervasive and so easy to break by just normally using a computer. But it’s not really Orwellian because you’d have to be totally Orwellian to enforce it universally and nobody actually wants to be that Orwellian about it. Better to be confusing and guilt inflicting, more Jewish mother than totalitarian state, with the occasional financially crucified single mom or college kid, so corporate rights holders can claim they really mean it this time.

We like to think of our laws meaning something, having teeth, and being right. We like to think of our laws as guides to good behavior, the blueprint for a polite and functional society that protects the weak and enables opportunity for all. Current copyright law, like all unreasonable law, undermines all of that. The real answer to your copyright questions is ignore the law when it doesn’t matter, and obey it when it does. How can you tell? You can’t! Isn’t this fun?

Nevertheless for the most part this is what we’re all doing these days. Most people have a good idea of when it’s really mean and harmful to infringe and don’t do it, or try to find other ways to compensate creators. People that can’t pay don’t, but then, they couldn’t pay, so no loss there. Some people really believe there should be no IP law at all, but even they are for creative people finding ways to make a living. Even the people for copyright maximalism at the total sacrifice of privacy and convenience aren’t actually for total enforcement, at least in part because they know they would be drawn and quartered. (I don’t mean in a bad press sense.) So we’re stuck with laws that not only don’t reflect reality, but in some cases actively conflict with physical realities of digital technology. We must obey them and enforce them internationally, except when we don’t at all. And their violation reflects a huge loss of money, except when that money never existed in the first place, and they limit our speech, except when they don’t because no one is bothered  about a particular work’s inclusion elsewhere anyway. Keep whistling and averting your eyes.

1. I am not a lawyer.
2. This is not my usually egregious hyperbole. If you google around, you will find various analysis from different years of the chance of being sued by the RIAA vs various weird forms of death.a

    a. But it is my usual form of laziness, given I don’t want to find all the links right now.

Participatory Bureaucracy

I’ve been playing with Transparency Corps, which I would like to write about. Besides being intriguing it would make my time marking up earmarks in the system research time rather than distraction from work.

It’s an interesting experience doing the earmark project, wherein you, the human, transcribe the vital data on earmark letters for the thousands of mysteriously funded projects that roll down the hill unto the masses. I am terrified of getting something wrong, and I already have once, but have no way of fixing it. Alas.

It’s nice to think of Sunlight getting all this civically-minded mechanical turk data, I’m almost more interested in the people, who, like me, are suddenly poking their noses in and wondering what these occult bit of government actually do. You simply cannot transcribe these earmarks without thinking about them. Some of them look like damn good ideas. Some of them seem just a bit off. Scariest, some of them so obviously have not been thought about by any human being between the requester and you- completely sliding through the government system in a form letter of appropriations. (Also, what the hell is with none of these earmarks giving funding amounts? )

Go to transparencycorps.org, sign up, and try out a few earmarks. For a boring task, it’s a pretty interesting experience.

Tab Dump

Matt  Taibbi explains, in his illimitable way,  how we’re all horribly fucked. The Big Takeover: The global economic crisis isn’t about money – it’s about power. How Wall Street insiders are using the bailout to stage a revolution.

Plastic and reconstructive surgery as art at Apexart in NYC: I am Art- An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery

(video) Ira Glass explains how narrative works, and in general rocks the free world:
Host and producer of This American Life at Gel 2007

Paul Ford breaths deeply when nervous:  How to vacuum your lungs