Police States are Bad Ideas

This is why:

Lower Merion School District employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded.

In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined.

But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

If authorities have the ability to behave badly, some of them always will. Which is why stuff like this is especially bad:

The MPAA and RIAA have submitted their master plan for enforcing copyright to the new Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Richard Esguerra points out, it’s a startlingly distopian work of science fiction. The entertainment industry calls for:

  • spyware on your computer that detects and deletes infringing materials;
  • mandatory censorware on all Internet connections to interdict transfers of infringing material;
  • border searches of personal media players, laptops and thumb-drives;
  • international bullying to force other countries to implement the same policies;
  • and free copyright enforcement provided by Fed cops and agencies (including the Department of Homeland Security!).

The Fourth Amendment has been gutted pretty extensively over the past generation, but if “unreasonable search and seizure” has any meaning at all, it should mean that neither the government nor private corporations should be legally empowered to constantly monitor our activities through our own computers.

I’ve thought for a while that the coming divide in our politics is not going to be one of conservatism versus liberalism, but about authoritarianism versus a politics of individual liberty. News like this goes to reinforce that belief, as does the acrimony of our current political climate in the US. More on the latter, later, but I’ll reiterate the main point: it’s a bad idea to give authorities unlimited surveillance powers because they will always, always be abused.



Tom Shales notes what was unavoidable in last night’s Super Bowl:

An oddly recurring theme had to do with men asserting their masculinity, or attempting to assert it, as well as the perpetual male fear of emasculation. In an ad for a very portable television called FloTV, a man was seen being dragged through a torturous shopping trip by his girlfriend while sportscaster Jim Nantz ridiculed him… [this in particular disappointed me – shame, Jim Nantz]

Men in their underwear kept popping up — in a Coke ad, a man sleepwalks in the wilderness, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. His odyssey ends only after he finds a cold bottle of Coke.

An ad for Dockers was keyed to the mantra “I wear no pants!” and featured men in their underwear romping around aimlessly. A funny ad for Career Builder.com, depicting the notion of Casual Friday run amok, showed men and women, most of them anything but physically fit, spending a day at the office in their undies.

Men and their traditional roles were also mocked, but somehow also celebrated, in adsintroducing Dove for Men, a line of toiletries. A man raced through a recitation of the chores and good deeds he had obediently done to the tune of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” once the theme of “The Lone Ranger” on radio and TV.

An ad for Dodge Charger called the muscle car “Man’s Last Stand” after depicting a supposedly put-upon male who listed all the nice things he did for his female mate. Were these ads for a post-feminist age? They seemed to have a retro appeal — for better and worse. Probably worse.

Not coincidentally are these numbers:

The top red line is unemployment among workers with less than high school education; dark yellow is male unemployment; light yellow is female unemployment; and purple unemployment for those with college educations or more.

Even progress will likely stabilize employment patterns more along these lines than previous patterns – the industries recovering first (service, health care) are traditionally and disproportionately female, whereas the industries hardest hit (construction, manufacturing) are traditionally and disproportionately male. Contra a lot of doomsaying, manufacturing is fine in the US – we just make more stuff with many fewer jobs than we used to, and so even with huge manufacturing growth we’ll have a yet more robust sector with fewer jobs than before (see, e.g., Chris Anderson’s recent piece on distributed manufacturing).

Construction has been hit hard by the inflation and then rapid popping of the housing bubble, and we shouldn’t want those particular jobs to return. But there’s plenty of stuff to build: repairing and improving our electric grid and crumbling bridges, sewers and other basic infrastructure. And then there’s “green jobs,” new energy generation, etc.

But when anyone talks about what the jobs of the 21st Century are going to be, it’s all about the “knowledge economy”, science and research: jobs that require education. And the numbers aren’t on men’s side here, either:

So yes, there’s “something out there” that advertising firms (who are not dumb) are picking up on, a reworking of previous patterns of gender roles in our new economy. Backlash always comes first. And a lot of people talk about how to “fix” the problem of boys/men being left behind. But that presumes that it is a problem, an assumption which takes the patriarchal status quo ante as some combination of natural, just and correct.

I’m not arguing that a society where increasing numbers of men are un- or under- educated and employed is a good or desirable thing: it’s pretty clear that over the long term that leads to undesirable outcomes including but not limited to violence and reactionary political movements (the above set of trends is most definitely one of the things fueling the Tea Parties). But more women in greater positions of economic and political power in this country would be a good thing – and given the macroeconomic trends, it seems likely to be part of our future.

I’ll heartily second what Jim Fallows says here (though without rehashing my earlier anti-Kindle thoughts, I wouldn’t say it’s an argument for the Kindle per se so much as eReaders in general):

My main view on communications media is that new systems usually add to old ones, rather than displacing them. Radio didn’t eliminate books and newspapers — that would come later!; movies didn’t eliminate still photos; TV didn’t eliminate either movies or radio; and the internet has not (yet) eliminated TV. A few communications systems do disappear altogether, except for specialist/curio use: vinyl records, photos on real film, etc. Usually the field just becomes more crowded and the options more diverse.

So it will be, at least for a while, with e-readers like the Kindle versus “real” books.

To add to this a bit, what I think this kind of innovation in new communications channels does is to rationalize the kind of content on each. For all the nostalgia that some (e.g., me) have about obsolete forms, books do a better job at holding novels than newspapers, so we don’t see serialized novels anymore. Similarly, TV and movies do a better job at dramatic narrative than radio, so very few radio dramas still exist. But radio’s still excellent at talk shows and sports broadcasts (safer, too, if you’re driving), and the nature of the technology means that nowadays we can shove a radio into just about anything else (e.g., cell phones).

eReaders are going to perform a similar function – eventually (sooner than later) they will mostly eliminate the printing of many academic texts and monographs (and this is going to be a good thing for the people who write those texts, but more on that later). There’s probably a good place for magazines on eReaders but I’m not quite sure on what that is. Many of the books at the top of best-seller lists will find a lot of their sales (or in the Kindle’s case, rentals) moving very quickly to eReaders once there’s a critical mass – which makes sense for the most disposable (if fun) stories. Nobody’s really that well-served by several dozen more Dan Brown books ending up in used book stores.

In the end, eReaders represent not a replacement for books but an overlapping-but-complimentary form. They’ll absolutely cut into book sales but there will be a new equilibrium whereby booksellers will be able to more clearly see what their market is, and isn’t.

Good post by Richard Nash on the future of publishing, most of which I agree with. I don’t agree at all, however, with one of the predictions:

3. Most predictions for 2020 based on models derived from controlling the supply side, that is, from the monopoly on the means of producing and distributing books, will be wrong. By which I mean, the supply chain book publishing and retail model is ending. The book retail chains will disappear, just like Circuit City, Sharper Image, Tower Records disappeared. And the corporate publishers will likely all but disappear just as Atari, Digital, Wang disappeared though the backlists will be spun off to private equity companies looking for semi-predictable IP-based cash flow, and a couple of front list publishing enterprises will likely be operating trying to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster model with just about enough success to be able to stay in business.

It seems certainly possible that Borders will not make it, but the idea that there will be literally no retail book chains is preposterous. Circuit City went out of business because they fired their best employees and destroyed whatever appeal they had as a place to get electronics; Tower Records went under because you can’t just sell CDs. But Best Buy is doing just fine, thankyewverymuch, because they have been flexible and now do all of what both Circuit City and Tower did, but better, and more.

Barnes & Noble is employing a not-dissimilar strategy: they knew from early on that an online presence is key, and while they’re not Amazon they’re well-established online. Similarly, they know that they’ve got to have an entrant in eReader space, so even if Nook doesn’t cut it, something will. B&N has also been pretty smart about store location; some of their mall and exurb locations may shut down but they’ve got a strong college store presence and lots of very attractive downtown city real estate. There was a time when I wished the chains nothing but ill, but I can’t fault B&N on how they’ve played the last several years, and I don’t see them going away.

More on all that later, but I also think this is spot-on from Nash:

8. In 2020 the disaffected twentysomethings of the burgeoning middle classes of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia will be producing novels faster than any of us can possibly imagine.


Research and Generalizability

A few weeks back I took an all-day seminar with Don Dillman, “How Visual Design and Layout Influence Responses to Questionairres.” It was a great course and I definitely recommend taking the opportunity to do anything similar with Dillman or Odum if the opportunity presents itself.

In addition to some great walk-throughs on the power of design to elicit greater rates of survey response, and the importance of harmonizing design elements across multiple modes in survey designs (i.e., web, mail, phone), Dillman also made a pretty shocking (even to him!) point about what his latest research showed: namely, that mail surveys are (still?again?) the best method:

Postal delivery sequence file (DSF) provides all residential addresses and may now be our best household address frame.

When you give this a minute to think, it’s not all that outlandish. Despite huge increases in Internet connectivity – even among older and rural populations – it remains far from universal, and any given channel online (e-mail, SNS) is only going to present a relatively small and self-selecting share of the population. Further, there’s no centralized database of “online users”, and those with the biggest files (Facebook, MySpace, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft) sure aren’t giving you access to them, Mr./Ms. Academic Researcher. Landline use continues to decline and cell-phone-only-households, with the protection of the Federal Do Not Call Registry, continue to move into a patchwork non-contactable space.

But nearly everyone still has a street address, and even if it’s not always correlated reliably with a person-name, it’s the best way to reach the biggest and most generalizable share of the population. So in a world where more and more of our interactions and identity are moving online and mobile, to spaces where we increasingly control access, how can researchers hope to build generalizable samples of the population?

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about the U.S. in five years. Just as most of the population now has a cell phone, most of the population will have a smart phone/iPhone-like device that will handle voice communications, e-mail, SNS, microblogging, etc. [A point for future discussion is just what this will do to the differential effects of media channel as observed in the media effects literature] It will be the pivot point for all of our communications and personal identity information – we’ll increasingly be using it as an identity storage and verification device for airport check-in, payment and receipt of payment, and a half-dozen other things that now seem outlandish and will soon seem mundane. It’ll be how we carry who we are, and how we tell others about that, for any manner of transactions and interactions.

But that identity will also be floating, a bit. There’ll be several big databases – the mobile companies, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. – but, again, they won’t be distributing Yellow Pages. Your identity will be relational and transactional and contingent but always subject to change and shift depending on your satisfaction with service provided. Which is good, but presents an increasing challenge to anyone who wants to find some kind of “everyone” (e.g., Census takers, public opinion researchers, etc.). What’s needed is a tether, that also is contingent and user-controlled, but is based on a stable hook.

The DSF can provide that hook. Most people will continue to have a street address – indeed, even the homeless can provide some manner of address that would interface with the DSF – even as the majority of their communications are mediated through shifting electronic interface. A user-controlled and -verified system of tying your various communication methods – contingently – to a physical address could allow users the ability to better control access to all manner of modes of communication and contact. Physical address and solicitation could become tokens that would then be entered into whatever other interface you wished (Amazon for deliveries, Gallup for polls, IRS.gov for taxes), allowing the third-party only what permissions you desired but also providing the verification layer that you are indeed [a person]. Of course this would raise all sorts of new issues about interface and self-report data, but given Dillman’s very promising results – >50% response rates to online surveys via mail solicitation (and >70% via mail) – this is certainly worth thinking about more extensively.

Privacy and Cloud Computing

I’ve been reading and re-reading Jim Fallows’ post from the other week and have concluded I have nothing smart to say that he doesn’t say already. But, here it is:

A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read — or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party — Google, Yahoo, et al — is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing — Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name — should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn’t mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there’s a big scandal or problem.

So – what he said.

Okay, maybe I do have a thought or two. Really what this problem advocates for is personal ownership of all identity information: everything either that is or is owned by you living together in a single space (also backed up in multiple redundant spaces) that, crucially, is also yourself such that you always have control over cloud computing resources. So rather than logging in to Google accounts and accessing your information, you log into your own server (virtual or otherwise) and use Google services to edit and modify the information. They get only what you show them at a given time and then it’s back in your own box. When you become your own third-party provider – and Google et al. are merely providing a limited service to manipulate or move your data – then Fourth Amendment questions are much more easily decided.


I had a great time presenting on my work with the Bot2.0 project earlier today at ASIS&T; you can find a copy of the talk here [.pdf]. Thanks to Miguel Ruiz for organizing the panel, moderating and presenting, to my co-panelists Bryan Heidorn and Nathan Hall, and everyone who came out to listen and ask some great questions.

Thus does a large group of eminent scientists frame a pretty gloomy assessment (ScienceDaily summation here) of the failure of multilateral cooperation on a wide range of threats facing Earth, including,

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects

Depressingly, there’s nothing to argue with there. But the fact that the authors feel the need to follow the above with the caveat that they are not advocating for countries to abandon sovereignty is troubling for two reasons. First, that scientists are so jumpy about charges of elitism that they feel the need to preemptively defend against the insane (and inevitable) charges from cranks (e.g., some U.S. senators) that global warming is some kind of hoax being perpetuated in the service of a one-world government. Or something.

Secondly, the caveat makes me itch because the authors leave the door open substantially for something similar in their conclusion:

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.

Their proposed solutions on global climate change, fisheries depletion and increased drug-resistance among drugs are to strengthen existing institutions (e.g., WHO) and introduce new institutions along similar lines (e.g., following the WTO). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the thrust of the editorial is to point out the failures of existing frameworks, and the frustration at free-rider problems and the inadequacy of current decision-making processes for addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s reading too many tea leaves to focus on this sentence and parse it out further:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. [emphasis mine]

I try not to get too paranoid about these things, but this taps pretty deeply into one of my fears with how the conversation on climate change is going to develop over the next 10-20 years. Scientists are rationalists and many are either very bad at or just can’t quite understand the functioning of politics (or are continually frustrated by the results – rightly so, often). Politics, indeed, isn’t very rational. And at the same time, for anyone who cares to look, we’re at a pretty grim moment for the continuance of human civilization along the lines which we’ve grown used to. Many scientists are getting pretty tired of pointing out this fact. As our institutions of shared collaborative decision-making (or not-making, as it may be) continue to dither in the face of planetary doom, it’s a great fear of mine that scientists will look for alternate means of addressing what they see (correctly) as increasingly dire climactic instability. In short, business: the actor with the means and motivation to address these issues on a massive scale, but not answerable to a larger (and often-annoying) polity. The thing is – and I’ve got plenty of dystopian SF narratives to back me up here! – it might work. Multinational corporate rule might save us from planetary self-destruction (or not), but at the great expense of human liberty.

I think that would be a Bad Thing. What would be a Good Thing, would be if scientists would get more engaged in politics. It’s a messy irrational business but that’s how it goes. Rather than pre-emptively defending themselves against Inhofian nonsense, why doesn’t a physics prof at the University of Oklahoma run against him? Or any and every other anti-science, climate-change-denying buffoon out there?

Would they win? Most likely not. But politics isn’t all about winning – or at least, not about winning one particular election. It’s about narratives, and the narrative of a widespread, grassroots effort from scientists to directly address the problems that they see  – rightly – as threatening our continued survival as a species would be a compelling one.

This story got a lot of buzz on the web the other day, and has stayed in the news cycle since. The long and the short of it is this:

“The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.”

That’s according to Jeremy Thomas, who produced the Charles Darwin biopic Creation, and that’s fine and all, but let’s put this into some perspective. He’s the film’s producer. That means that he’s making money off the film: indeed, that he’s on the hook for the financial success or failure of the film. I’m sure there are some people who’ve said it’s the best film they’re seen all year but, you know: my mom says I’m cool, too.

It’s possible that there’s some great conspiracy of film distributors – all film distributors in the United States, based largely in those hotbeds of conservatism, Hollywood and New York City – who support a right-wing, anti-science agenda, and who would spike a great film that would make them tons of money just to keep Americans ignorant of the true story of Charles Darwin.

Alternately, it’s also possible that the film is a low-key costume drama about a 19th C. English naturalist and his internal struggles. Or as the review of the film in Variety puts it:

“Creation” feels somewhat static in storytelling terms. Once basic conflicts are established, we simply wait for Darwin to come to terms with his grief, marriage and imminent notoriety. Not much “happens,” though the pic does its best to maintain energy in both physical presentation and mixed-chronology structure.

Leads are also a little monotonous: Bettany is appealing but this Charles is at times nearly a sickly bore, while Connelly, not an actor with much lightness, is OK but emphasizes Emma’s grave concern and disapproval to the exclusion of nearly every other quality.

In other words: maybe it’s just kind of a boring movie.

I know it’s fun to beat up on Americans for being a bunch of crazy know-nothings, to point out as the author of the Telegraph story did, that “only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution” and that there are message boards full of nutty anti-science kooks who call Darwin a Nazi, etc. It’s certainly a favorite past-time of many Britons, and there are a lot of folks here who get in on the game, too. And, you know: yeah, it’s pretty frustrating that there are so many Americans who are kinda nuts.

But let’s keep this in perspective. Hollywood likes to make money. Lots of it. They’re perfectly willing to produce and distribute eye-poking nonsense like Religulous – which the right wing was a lot more pissed off about – if they can count on $13 M receipts on a $2.5M budget, with a $3.5M opening weekend. That’s a very nice margin, and Religulous got pretty wide distribution to get there – not just indie theaters but a fair number of multiplexes, too, opening on over 500 screens and staying at over 400 screens for a month. There’s no way Creation opens that big, so to even approach those kinds of numbers, it’d have to not just do respectable business but really blow the doors off of the art-house circuit – sellouts, $60K screens, etc. – and given what it appears to be, I’m not really shocked that it failed to find a distributor willing to roll the dice.

We’re getting into Oscar season, both in big-budget and Oscar-bait-indie vintage. The screens are crowded and you need a pretty hot property to get into the conversation. The fact that Creation doesn’t rise to that level doesn’t say anything about Darwin’s theory of evolution being “too controversial for American audiences” and everything about some pretty banal economic realities of the movie biz.

Selling the Footage


A Russian Internet investment firm has invested $200 million in Facebook, giving the social networking company a cash buffer during the recession and pegging its value at $10 billion.Digital Sky Technologies, which has invested in leading Russian web properties like Mail.ru and Vkontakte.ru, will take a nearly 2 percent stake in Facebook in exchange for preferred stock, the two companies said on Tuesday.

…Digital Sky won because its founders Yuri Milner and Gregory Finger have strong experience running Internet properties in Eastern Europe and Russia, and “a deep, advanced understanding” of social networking technology, Zuckerberg said.

“Ultimately (it was) this deal and my comfort with Yuri and the team,” said Zuckerberg, 25, who founded Facebook in a Harvard University dorm room five years ago.

My immediate thoughts were that Yuri and Gregory must simply be frontmen for Hubertus Bigend, but that’s probably not right. Tumblr is much more Blue Ant’s speed.