Universal Media Coverage & Our Sense of Place

handsThere are two horrible things that happened in the last week.  The first being the tragic events at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, which I will not repeat.  The second being a group of professional trolls who seeks to exploit this tragedy for their own religious-litigious ends in their usual fashion.  I do not name them, because I do not wish to increase their notoriety.

Both of these incidents brought me back to thinking about my November entry about the racist teens on Twitter*.  In that post I talk about how beneficial this new, deeply connected world is, and how ultimately this can lead to the dissolution of racism by popping the bubbles of isolated places.

In light of this last week of events, I can also see the flipside.  Over at Quartz, Lenore Skenazy wrote an excellent piece comparing the abundance of media coverage now to that of an incident that took place in Michigan in 1928.  The salient piece of her article is this:

“In 1928, the odds are that if people in this country read about this tragedy, they read it several days later, in place that was hard to get to,” explains Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking” (Perigee Books, 2012). “You couldn’t hop on a plane and be there in an hour. Michigan? If you were living in South Carolina, it would be a three-day drive. It’s almost another country. You’d think, ‘Those crazy people in Michigan,’ same as if a school blows up in one of the breakaway Republics.”

Time and space create distance. But today, those have compressed to zero. The Connecticut shooting comes into our homes–even our hands–instantly, no matter where we live. We see the shattered parents in real time. The President can barely maintain composure. This sorrow isn’t far away, it’s local for every single one of us.

For good or ill, she’s right.

On September 11, 2001 I lived in Seattle, Washington.  My mother called me at 6:00 a.m. and me, being a graduate student, had been out till the wee hours at the pub.  I was groggy, and asked her if she remembered the three hour time difference between Washington and Ohio.  She told me to turn on the television, and I did.  Every channel was playing the video.  I don’t even need to tell you what it was, because we all saw it. Every single person who was alive at that moment in the United States remembers that moment.  And for three solid days I couldn’t tear myself away from the coverage.  I was shaken, traumatized, and I was 3,000 miles away.  When Fox finally broke the 24/7 coverage and played a commercial I broke down in tears.  A truck never made me so happy.  Reruns of Friends came back on and I felt like I wasn’t going to die of perpetual grief.

We are becoming more and more deeply interconnected on a global scale.  This amplifies the experience of tragic events to national and international proportions.  With Twitter reports from people at the scene of these events, something will come to you immediately with the cache of personal experience.

In thinking about the trolls, I have been telling people time and again, don’t feed the trolls. The more you try to fight them, the stronger their resolve. And this latest iteration of their trolling made me long for a media blackout.  Such a thing is no longer possible, if it ever really was, because now everyone is the media.  Again, for good or ill.

All this makes me feel that yes, we are one. Your flaws are everyone’s flaws, your pain is everyone’s pain, and your joy is everyone’s joy.  We are one people, on one planet.  Different as snowflakes, but all connected.


* In the wake of the Connecticut event, the President pre-empted Sunday night football coverage to deliver a message to a grieving nation.  Racist jerks responded on Twitter and Deadspin (a sister blog to Jezebel) had that coverage.


Patenting a Rectangle

Let’s all move to Octagons.

This week in bizarro patent law drama, a jury found that Samsung violated patents held by Apple corporation which included among them a patent on the rectangular shape of the phone.  The jury awarded damages in the amount of $1 billion to Apple, which amazingly was around a third of what Apple asked for in damages based on market share.

This is obviously a horrible abuse of patent law, and just continues to underscore the very deep need for reform in the American patent system.  There should be no way possible to patent something so basic and obvious as a shape.

So, now Samsung has to either a) pay to license the fucking shape of a phone, or b) come up with something new.

I say that something new is already out there.

In the megahit sci-fi reboot of Battlestar Galactica there was a pervasive use of octagonal paper.

When life tells you rectangles are patented,  you make octagons.

I see this as the wave of the future.  The workaround for all future generations is to create a general public license on octagons, that forbids anyone from claiming direct ownership of the form.  And all future generations will live in the BSG world of our dreams.

Why is There No Liberal “Canon” of Literature?

The Sierpinski Triangle is an example of a nested fractal.

Beverly Gage over at Slate asks a great question, and answers it without actually saying so.  In “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” she lays out the fact that conservative candidates always return to the same philosophical, literary roots.

But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.

But then she makes  a leap in the very next sentence.

Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.

I think in this instance she’s absolutely wrong.  Primarily because of what she says shortly thereafter.

Here’s the key point right here.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

This is where I feel she loses perspective.  Contemporary liberalism differs so markedly from contemporary conservatism, because of the former’s focus on the value of of the individual.  Liberalism has redefined itself as a politics that recognizes the complexity of society, the complexity of life, and thus cannot, and should not, pit one group against the other.  Your cause is our cause, your rights are universal rights, and the plight of the smallest is the plight of the whole.  It is utterly inclusive, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous.

A complaint I have levied against liberal politics is that we can barely articulate a stance at a rally to give a unified voice.  If you’ve been to a political protest in the last ten years you’d know that it’s not just about ending war, it’s about the plight of minorities, about Palestine, about Hurricane Katrina victims, about rape culture, about pot legalization.  It’s a crazy quilt of issues, and everyone wanting their voice to be heard.  But we liberals believe that our voices, no matter how small, should be heard, because all voices have value.

XKCD Comic

This is the reality of liberal politics.

So, how can we ever begin to develop a corpus of literature, to develop a “consistent message?”  We can’t.  It’s impossible.  As Randall Munroe, very effectively, said yesterday “Human subcultures are nested fractally.  There is no bottom.”  There are further minority politics embedded deeper into every group.  There are fringes on the fringe of the fringe.  We just continue to dig deeper, excavate new layers of complexity, and say, “yes, you too are a part of us.”  Once we’ve read through a vast body of feminist literature, we then look at different waves of feminism, and how that’s changed over time, and then look at challenges to each subsequent iteration, and then and then and then.  The same is true of black studies, queer theory, any other ethnic, religious, and minority group that has ever, or may ever cross through here, and then the deal with the incredible new layers of reality that people are adding to their identities on a daily basis, otherkin, furries, polyamorists, cyberpeople, transhumanists, virtual people, who knows what else may come…

The homogeneity of thought that comes from a canon of literature is great for people who don’t want to have to think about the harsh, and complex realities associated with anyone’s lives other than their own.  It allows them to develop a rigid sense of morality, a definite set of what is in and what is out, and allows for the crafting of legislative agendas that move through like clockwork, because they’re not bound up in the morass of having to explore how their ideology impacts anyone, and if it does, well, the fact that they “don’t get it” is reason enough to just let them go.

There is no liberal canon, because we can’t stop saying “Yes, we care.  Your life is valid, and I want to understand you better.”   The liberal canon is the library, and studying it is the work of a lifetime.

The Saga of MegaUpload

This is what you see when a website is seized by the federal government.

Several of my friends have posted today that they think that the Anonymous DDOS attack against the websites for the FBI, the DOJ, MPAA, RIAA and others was wrong.  I disagree with them and there is a lengthy reason why.  Let me walk you through the Saga of MegaUpload.

For those who don’t know, MegaUpload is a file sharing site.  People use this site because they tend to sometimes have files that exceed the capacity limits of regular email providers, and they need to send those files to other people. There are whole broad range of websites who perform this service including YouSendIt and DropBox.  But MegaUpload was extremely popular because they had great connection speeds and a lot of individuals and businesses used it for its intended purposes.  Well, with any file sharing service comes a crop of people who use that service to share copies of copyright protected material.  Some users had taken advantage of the unlimited file sizes and uploaded entire sets of television shows and DVD rips, CDs and more.  When you upload a file you get a link to somewhere on the MegaUpload server, that you can share with whomever, and some people shared those links with the entire world.

Now, as I said before, every website that allows users to upload content runs into this problem one way or another.  So, Congress when they were exploring legal options for the future of protecting copyright crafted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  In the DMCA there is a provision for businesses who run upload sites to be exempted from copyright lawsuits and to continue doing business so long as they investigate and take down infringing content when prompted by a copyright holder.  This is called the “Safe Harbor” provision.  Every site that hosts user uploads has to comply with this, for fear of losing their entire business.  YouTube provides one of the main examples of how this works.  Say someone saves an mp4 of Saturday Night Live, they clip a skit out from the show and upload that as a YouTube video.  NBC Universal owns the right to reproduce SNL videos and they find that clip on YouTube.  They tell YouTube to take down the video because it’s infringing on their copyright.  YouTube checks the video and takes it down if they believe that the copyright holder is in the right.  Though more often than not the link will get taken down first, the link uploader will write back to YouTube and tell them that this was wrong and that they do own the copyright for real and then the link gets restored.

In early December MegaUpload released a promotional video on YouTube made by a number of high profile recording artists like Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, and Will.i.am to promote the use of MegaUpload.  Universal Music Group promptly filed a DMCA takedown request with YouTube to have the video suppressed, because UMG, the parent company for many of these artists, believes that MegaUpload is a threat to their business model, and the Recording Industry Association of America has deemed MegaUpload a “rogue site.”  So, even though all of the artists have contracts on file with MegaUpload to perform and distribute the song, UMG filed this takedown notice claiming that there were some people on there who didn’t in fact actually agree to it.  It went back and forth for a while at YouTube and eventually it just got taken down entirely.  On December 13 MegaUpload announced that it was going to directly sue UMG for filing false DMCA takedown requests.  The thing that was even more interesting is that UMG filed a DMCA take down notice for a local news program who played the video in the background of a report about the UMG MegaUpload controversy, and YouTube took that down too.

Now all of this was happening while in the background there was a slowly simmering online opposition to the impending SOPA and PIPA legislation that I wrote about previously.  As many people pointed out SOPA would eradicate the safe harbor provisions inherent in the DMCA, making sites like YouTube, DropBox, and MegaUpload vulnerable to DNS seizure by the federal government.  As the internet began to rally against SOPA the entire conversation about MegaUpload began falling by the wayside.

On January 18th, a host of prominent and powerful websites participated in an internet blackout in response to SOPA.  The effect was tremendous, and number of legislators who had originally been backing SOPA and PIPA in Congress pulled their support, many who were undecided declared their opposition, and ultimately Patrick Leahy and Lamar Smith tabled both bills.  No one is under any delusion that there won’t be new versions of these bills coming out sometime in the near future, but the legislation as it was originally drafted is not coming back.

The very next day Federal agents shut down MegaUpload, raided the homes of their founder and staff and seized data centers in three different countries. It’s kind of hard to say that it wasn’t an attack of vengeance, or a strike back against the derailment of SOPA.  In fact former Senator Chris Dodd, who is now the public face of the Motion Picture Association of America, basically said that Obama could just forget about Hollywood financing if he doesn’t get tough on piracy.  Sure, correlation is not causation, but it sometimes is just a lot of correlation.  To threaten the campaign funding of an incumbent President to get your way, well, that sure looks a lot like blackmail for favors.

Anonymous flag via WikiMedia Commons

The hacker community swiftly responded with a coordinated DDOS attack against the public websites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, Universal Music Group, the RIAA, and MPAA.  Where people have been losing their minds is when irresponsible journalists like those at the Washington Post use headlines that say that the Department of Justice was “hacked.”  No, the DOJ was not “hacked.”  Nothing was broken into.  No files were stolen or compromised.  These sites were hit with a distributed denial of service attack against their public websites.  DDOS is basically when a website is hit all at once with a huge number of requests to send the content to a browser.  The volume of requests can’t be handled by the web servers and it slows to a crawl.  This renders the website inaccessible during the timeframe of the attack.  In this case the DDOS lasted 70 minutes.

As a former federal employee, I can tell you that I used my agency’s publicly facing website 0% of the time.  All of my activities for my work happened entirely on intranet systems or external vendor services that would not be effected by something of this nature.  I imagine the same is true of any company, government agency, or non-profit institution.  DDOSing a public website just means that someone from the public can’t go to that website until the DDOS is over.  Given the length of time that Anonymous ran this attack, the sites that were targeted, and the irrelevance to business operational functions, my opinion of this DDOS attack is that it served simply as a statement.  Hackers were pissed that a popular site was taken down, so they sought to “take down” those responsible.  Is it juvenile?  Sure.  Does it make a point?  Absolutely.

Putting the activities of Anonymous aside, there are a ton of reasons why the MegaUpload raid was uncalled for, and that the DOJ may have an extremely difficult time pushing this to conviction.  TechDirt did some really great analysis of how the indictment is not only problematic, but attempts to prosecute the case in a method that is inconsistent with previous cases of its type.  It’s definitely worth taking a look.

The main problem that I have with the MegaUpload take down is that thousands millions of innocent, non-infringing people are being screwed out of content that they legitimately own.  MegaUpload had over 150 million users, and nearly 50 million hits per day.  All of that can’t be infringing material.  A personal friend of mine had all of his music backed up on MegaUpload.  He didn’t make his links available to anyone but himself, and as a storage solution this was great.  The same is true of a number of companies and non-profits, like Public Knowledge.  Software developers would use MegaUpload to host code they were working on to build new apps.  And this is exactly why the DMCA has a safe harbor protection.  The fallout for taking down a website like this is so much greater than just the people who are committing acts that violate copyright.  It means that people who use this service for legitimate purposes have no recourse to regain their data.  Even if Kim Dotcom and his staff are acquitted, the servers and their data will remain as evidence in a warehouse somewhere throughout the course of the trial.

Opposition to SOPA and PIPA was based around provisions in those bills that would make practices like what is currently happening to MegaUpload the norm.  Any website that was accused of being non-compliant would be raided, shutdown and prosecuted.  There didn’t even have to be a finding of fact, or a trial, just an accusation.  As Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal said in his hilarious and brilliant animation it’s like dealing with a lion who escaped from the zoo by using a flame thrower on a basket of kittens.  Yes.  Copyright violation is bad.  But so is deleting the files of thousands of innocent people who use a service for legitimate means.  While the DMCA may not be perfect, they did get one thing absolutely right and that was that prosecution for copyright violations should target the offenders, not the service they use.

Who’s Supporting SOPA? Publishers.

Loads of people have published the list of organizations and businesses who are supporting SOPA.  But not everyone knows what these companies are or what they do.  And looking at that four page list is kind of overwhelming to say the least.  So I’ve put together a little pie chart to help you wrap your brain around where this is coming from.  Take a look.

This chart shows the raw number of supporters per industry type who are listed on the House Judiciary Committee list supporting SOPA*.  I’ve removed all the law firms because damn near every one of them bailed for being misrepresented as supporting the bill.  There were 19 of them in this list. I’ve also removed the Graphic Artists Guild who also dropped the bill.  But everyone else I’ve left in here.

It’s no surprise really that Music is the largest industry represented here.  Music was the first battleground in internet change in the early 2000’s (see Napster).  Similarly the Movies and Television categories are no surprise either.  Of course Law Enforcement advocacy groups are in favor, because increases in enforcement mean expanding budgets.  And it’s definitely a sign of the times that the second largest group in favor right now are publishing companies.  Further down the chain you start to get into some quirky political action committees and luxury brands who are probably looking to crack down on counterfeiting.

But as I’m a librarian, I’m going to focus on the publishers for now.  Here’s the list as I see it.

Association of American Publishers (AAP)
Cengage Learning
Disney Publishing Worldwide, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide
Marvel Entertainment
McGraw-Hill Education
MPA – The Association of Magazine Media
News Corporation
Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Random House
Scholastic, Inc.
The Perseus Books Groups
W.W. Norton & Company
Wolters Kluewer Health

A couple of things jump out at me looking at this list.

Academic Publishing

The first being the academic publishing powerhouses that are Elsevier, Gale (via Cengage), W.W. Norton and Wolters Kluewer.  Elsevier owns nearly every academic journal that is published in the world, and they charge a bloody fortune for access to those journals.  Gale/Cengage provide a number of research databases, as does Wolters Kluewer.  And Norton is a publisher of many things, but primarily academic textbooks, as is McGraw Hill.

Publishers with eBook Axes to Grind

Harper Collins was noted earlier this year for changing their eBook access privileges to library eBook vendor Overdrive, where their eBooks will self destruct after 26 checkouts.  Penguin also got into some drama with Overdrive access privileges this November, when, during a dispute with Amazon.com, they chose to pull all of their eBooks from Overdrive.  Access was restored fairly swiftly as negotiations resumed, but that spectre of loss is still kind of looming. Similarly, Hachette Book Group pulled all of its titles from all of the eBook distribution channels in 2009 and even up to August of this year was still trying to sort out what to do with library access.

Hot Properties

Marvel and Disney (though Disney owns Marvel) own a lot of tradmarked characters, and they enforce the shit out of those trademarks.  I remember going to the ICv2 Graphic Novel Conference at New York Comic Con a few years ago.  There was a panel discussion on fan fiction and they had folks from Dark Horse, Marvel and Nickelodeon.  I remember vividly that the folks from Dark Horse were all about fan fiction, and that they mine sites like Deviant Art to scout new talent.  Similarly the guy who produces Avatar: the Last Airbender was really supportive of fan fiction as a way of encouraging children to be creative and tell new stories.  The guy from Marvel, sue the shit out of those fan fiction people (paraphrasing).  The look of aghast horror on the faces of the other panel members was priceless.  But it definitely made the point, and its the point that comic book companies and the Disney corporation have been making for decades.  These properties belong to us, and you can not use them for any reason.  As for Scholastic, I’m sure you’ve heard of Harry Potter.

Now, all of the groups that I’ve listed here are pretty strictly print/ebook publishers or advocacy groups that focus on publishing rights.  There are plenty of other crossover companies like Time Warner, which I classed as a television company, but also produces books and films.  So if you want to quibble with my numbers you can find them here.  Sorry that this is kind of sucky looking, but Scribd kind of breaks the formatting a LOT.

* In my original analysis I had tagged Pearson Education as a publisher, and its identified as such in the Scribd document, but looking closer into them they are more of a web education portal developer, kind of like Blackboard. I’ve removed them from the table on this article, but the number is still in the pie chart. So the pie chart number of publishers should be reduced to 17. Which is still the second largest industry involved in this piece of legislation.

The All Spin Zone

twisted face

Objects in mirror are less twisted than they appear

I spent the better part of last night having a “conversation” with two of the people on my Facebook list who hold diverging political viewpoints from myself.  I use conversation in quotes, because this wasn’t really a conversation.  It was rather an ideologue shouting up an incendiary piece of rhetoric and my calmly explaining to that person how the information that they’re looking at is biased.  I should have taken the advice of everyone in the universe and “don’t feed the trolls.”  Often I can’t help but attempt to challenge someone who holds an opinion based on misinformation.  Because that’s where this is coming from, misinformation and a lack of intellectual curiosity to explore the veracity of the claims being presented.

OWS & Crime

The majority of this conversation I had last night focused around the belief that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are a band of criminal thugs who are out to destroy America.  This is a pretty standard talking point of conservative media outlets, and pretty much only conservative media outlets.  On October 11th the New York Times ran a story about the complexity of dealing with criminal activity among the encampment in Zucotti Park, following in the wake of a female camper who was raped.  They discuss the competing narratives within the police reports about activity surrounding the event and talk about the steps that the OWS protesters had taken to provide on site security for the encampment.  In the wake of this article, conservative media outlets began characterizing the Occupy Wall Street protest as being nothing but “crime all the time,” exacerbating the image of the group as a lawless mob.  And there is no doubt that growing security risks were a problem within the encampment.  It was a large event that ran for months with only volunteers who had varying degrees of security training, an inconsistent approach to dealing with conflict, and a very confusing relationship with police.  But this doesn’t mean that they are, as a whole, a group of criminal thugs.  Just that security at the event was difficult to maintain, and that is true in a lot of large public venues where people are emotionally engaged.

And then there is the story of Nkrumah Tinsley who was captured on video stating that they were going to burn New York City to the ground.  Again, this story was picked up by conservative news outlets, ran like the wind, and painted the entirety of the protesters as violent, firebombing anarchists.  My conservative friend said “why didn’t they shout him down? Why didn’t they say, that’s not us?!”  The implication is that the protestors support that message.  So, I went looking for the video, and here it is.

As you can see, Nkrumah Tinsley, the person who goes on this screed, is at first being supported by the human microphone.  This is a technique whereby the people surrounding a speaker repeat what the speaker says to increase the volume of the comment for other people to hear.  After the human mic repeats “On November 17th…” Tinsley launches into his firebombing idea.  But the human mic stops.  They don’t spread that message, they don’t amplify his words.  And the people around him look awkward and walk away.  There are only two people who are supporting this message in the video, one is the person who Tinsley is high fiving at the end of his first tirade, and the second is the casual supporter who’s standing next to him at the end of the video.  Tinsley, is one person, with maybe two supporters, at a protest of thousands of people.  And his own mother, in court, said that he has always had mental problems.  These protests are public events and people who are emotionally disturbed are drawn to these places, especially if he or she believes that s/he has a message to impart to the world.  Managing that is a challenge for anyone who operates in a public environment.

Not to mention that public events are also subject to the work of agents provocateurs.  Early on in the Occupation happening in Washington DC a similar protest was being formed to make a statement about unmanned aerial drones. Patrick Howley, a journalist working for the American Prospect, a conservative publication, intentionally infiltrated the protest going to march on the Air and Space Museum.  His instigation of the crowd at the Air and Space museum led to him and other protesters being maced by security staff at the museum and forcing the museum to close two hours early.

My concern in this part of the conversation was that biased media sources and their proponents are using a broad brush to characterize the entirety of the protesters as a lawless band of thugs. This is both oversimplifying the problems and practicing guilt by association.  The overwhelming majority of the people involved in occupy protests are peaceful people who are there to support a message.  The criminal acts of individuals, and the rants of delusional people are the exception and not the rule.  By this crazy train of logic everyone involved in college sports supports pedophilia, just because of the rape scandal at Penn State.