A System of Singularities

The systemIf you've spent any time in help forums or discussion groups searching for answers to software problems or hardware malfunctions—or maybe just insight before you plunk down your money for a new widget of some sort—you've probably noticed a nearly universal oddity. For every person whose experience with Product X has been nothing short of hellish, it seems there's someone with exactly the opposite experience. Assuming both are working products—i.e. one of them isn't simply defective—there has to be more than mere coincidence to account for this disparity.

One thing I've noticed is the distinction between User A, who seems inclined to read instructions, FAQs, and other documentation, and User B, who generally does none of those things. For this reason, User B is also more likely to immediately ask for help, even though the solution is probably in that aforementioned FAQ, or has otherwise been previously illuminated. This scenario eventually results in a loss of patience by those in the User A group, and may also have a chilling effect on the good will of forum administrators, or designated assistants. Sadly, this state of affairs also seems to induce paranoia in certain Users B; some begin to suspect a general conspiracy, which only perpetuates their cycle of unsolved problems.

Naturally, not every problem is caused by an unwillingness to self-educate; some are the result of genuine failure of one kind or another. However, the real reasons for these failures aren't always communicated to those who are expected to fix the mess. For example, where the mess involves a Web site—or perhaps more to the point, a blog—that's been hacked and modified with third-party enhancements, the actual reason for its failure may have nothing to do with the original design, much less those tasked with maintaining its day-to-day operation. I'm continually amazed at the explosive reactions of people who've just experienced a significant problem with their site, and immediately launch a salvo of rage-missiles at the site host, even when the reason for the destruction has nothing to do with the host, and everything to do with imprudent—and sometimes incompetent—modifications to the site, or blog, or whatever happens to have melted down on that particular day.

If patience is a virtue in general, it's an absolute necessity in the world of computers. In the context of software, the odds of a perfectly functioning system—by this I mean one able to endure every possible circumstance—are exceedingly slim. Even the robust UNIX systems that keep the Net running 24/7 can't cope with every situation, although they're far better at it than certain unnamable alternatives. But eventually there will be a problem that affects your own site, and with any luck there will be a concerted effort to correct the problem as soon as is humanly possible. In the meantime, patience is a virtue; firing off a dozen messages to the support team won't help any more than repeated phone calls to the utilities department will restore your electricity after a storm. About a week ago, a popular site-statistics provider experienced a glitch of some sort, resulting in a temporary lapse of service to some of its subscribers. One guy freaked out and reinitialized the service from the ground up, completely wiping his accumulated site statistics in the process, not to mention passwords and associated user information. Had he only waited another hour or so, the service would have returned and he would have lost nothing. When it comes to computers, patience is the remedy for many ills. Sometimes it's the only remedy.

Still, I think there must be other, more mysterious reasons for the disparity between user experiences. It has to be more than mere serendipity, but what, exactly, to place in the equation instead? A combination of things, I suppose, which seems to satisfy the equation in most other cases as well; it's always a system, not a singularity. There are identifiable reasons, I'm sure, for the general lack of problems with computers, or other technological tools; there are equally identifiable reasons for the general lack of success with those things. Time is one element; it takes time to learn anything. On the other hand, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Desire is an element, too; it's far easier to absorb information when it's interesting. On the other hand, simple necessity often dictates what we learn. Education fits the equation; the foundation of knowledge has to be sufficient to allow construction above. On the other hand, some people instantly grasp new concepts with no obvious exposure to commonly accepted prerequisites.

Or maybe it's something else entirely.



Objects in photo are smaller than they appearOne of the more ubiquitous examples of our advancing technology is the digital camera. The tiny light-gathering chips and associated circuitry have become so inexpensive that it's no longer a question of how much the consumer is willing to pay for a camera that's imbedded in some other electronic device, like a cell phone. Now, the question has more to do with the consumer's willingness to even consider a phone that is, for all practical purposes, stone blind.

The ability to capture images of our surroundings—of our lives, really—isn't a latent fascination, of course. It's just that the bulky film cameras used by our forefathers and foremothers to capture birthday parties and family vacations have morphed into sleek, pocketable digital cameras and camcorders, and their even sleeker phone-cam counterparts. Not that tiny cameras with tiny lenses represent the state of the art when it comes to image quality, but the tradeoff seems worthwhile because it eliminates the familiar you never have a camera when you need one whine. After all, it's pretty easy to stow a small, slim camera in a pocket, and the probability of Citizen X without his or her cell phone is statistically moot.

Unfortunately, the tinycam tradeoff isn't without its dark side. While resolution continues to improve, the fact remains that there's only so much you can do with a square inch of available real estate on a cell phone, or the similarly cramped dimensions of a pocket camera, especially when the overriding imperative is a competitive retail price. The combination of inexpensive optics—particularly when the focal length is fixed somewhere between wide-angle and fisheye—and miniature focal plane means that spectacular vista you snapped on your recent road trip may seem considerably less dramatic when viewed on the computer screen, or printed on paper. Worse, those candid portraits of yourself taken while holding the tinycam at arm's length may trigger bouts of melancholy over the bargelike dimensions of your own nose, as captured by that distortion-inducing wide lens.

Adolescence is tough already. Add the often unflattering effects of substandard optics combined with a lack of understanding about lens-induced perspective distortion, and those spontaneous glamour shots become catalysts of self-loathing, and the sudden desire for cosmetic surgery. When I received the following e-mail from my teenage daughter, I didn't even have to look at the attached photo to know there was impulsive close-up photography involved, with the zoom set wide.

Ok, this doesn't even look like me! AGH! Lol plus my eyes are all X-files.

She was right. It didn't look much like her, but that was because . . . well, you already know why. And yeah, the eyes were interesting, as they so often are when the pupils are wide open in a dimly lit room. Lol indeed. It's too late for this year's gift-giving, but I think the inexpensive cameras ought to carry warning labels about photographed objects being smaller, and far less distorted, than they appear. Or words to that effect.


Section 230 in Action

230 rules, mostlyRecent discussions on this blog regarding protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act make it nearly obligatory to mention the California court case that, happily, adds weight to the argument that simply transporting another's words doesn't automatically create liability. In January of 2004, a California appeals court refused to dismiss a defamation suit that involved republishing someone else's words on the Internet—posting another's e-mail to a newsgroup in this case—effectively removing exactly the sort of protection that Section 230 provides. A week ago today, the California Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, thereby supporting and strengthening existing precedent concerning legal immunity for transmitting—but not creating—defamatory content.

Quoting a November 20 news release on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's site, the action upholds what other courts, including the Supreme Court, have already established.

Today's ruling affirms that blogs, websites, listservs, and ISPs like Yahoo!, as well as individuals like defendant Ilena Rosenthal, are protected under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which explicitly states that "[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

For anyone in the business of blogging, this reaffirmation is particularly welcome. But it may be worthwhile to mention, again, that Section 230 protection extends beyond situations involving defamation, as the EFF's Bloggers' FAQ - Section 230 Protections makes clear.

Is Section 230 limited to defamation?

No. It has been used to protect intermediaries against claims of negligent misrepresentation, interference with business expectancy, breach of contract, intentional nuisance, violations of federal civil rights, and emotional distress. It protected against a state cause of action for violating a statute that forbids dealers in autographed sports items from misrepresenting those items as authentically autographed. It extends to unfair competition laws. It protected a library from being held liable for misuse of public funds, nuisance, and premises liability for providing computers allowing access to pornography.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also maintains—among many other things—an archive of some key Section 230 cases, which is well worth exploring as an aid to anticipating future rulings.

Also worth repeating, possibly, is the distinction between words you create, and words you change. It seems obvious that altering the intent of someone else's words is the equivalent of a lie, but if the EFF sees fit to address the issue in their Bloggers' FAQ - Section 230 Protections, there's probably a good reason for it.

The courts have not clarified the line between acceptable editing and the point at which you become the "information content provider." To the extent that your edits or comment change the meaning of the information, and the new meaning is defamatory, you may lose the protection of Section 230.

In any event, last week's court ruling can only help the cause of free speech on the Internet. As EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl put it, "By reversing the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court has brought California back in line with other jurisdictions and reaffirmed the critical rule that the soapbox is not liable for what the speaker has said."


Web Curators

A microgallery, sort ofA couple days ago, I ran across an article that caused me to think about certain aspects of the Web in ways I hadn't before. In fact, it was posted on Suw Charman's Strange Attractor blog, and she mentions therein the falling barriers to creativity due to technology and its ready availability to the masses. That part isn't news, exactly, but a bit further along things became more intriguing.

I was at a 'future of...' session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was 'the ubiquity of everything'. My fellow brainstormers didn't seem to agree with the word 'everything', but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

Some sort of global attention-deficit disorder, perhaps? As it turns out, what Ms. Charman has in mind is the sheer volume of stuff available on demand, more than anyone can reasonably handle: movies, blogs, podcasts, Internet radio, games, Web applications, and of course there are still the books. Then, as more and more people become intrigued—and even excited, to use her word—with this new creative, participatory outlet, we wind up with a feedback loop. Amplification leads to more amplification until the volume exceeds the system's ability to generate anything but distortion, and then it all goes nonlinear and collapses into a state of spurious oscillation. Then the universe, as we know it, ends.

Ha ha—just kidding. The universe doesn't really end. What really happens, according to Suw's model, is an increasing necessity for filtering and aggregation, only not in the way it's been traditionally done. In other words, we don't need gatekeepers; we need curators.

We do, however, still need help. There's just too much stuff around for us to know what's out there, to keep up with what's good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

It's an interesting concept, really. It's difficult for me to think of the Net as a museum, or even a gallery, but that's only because the exhibits are in such a tremendous state of flux; some are definitely gathering e-dust, but new exhibits are arriving by the nanosecond.

Aside from the more obvious conceptual differences, there are a couple things that set the traditional curator and the new Web curator apart. For one, curators usually don't contribute their own work to the exhibits, at least not on a regular basis. And the speed and volume of new creations vying for attention—and exhibit space—requires constant attention, which demands a proportional expenditure of energy, and time. So who, exactly, will perform this new job? Actually, you will. Or already are, maybe.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

In this context, the distinction is between the traditional "media gatekeepers"—those unwanted "arbiters of taste," as Suw describes them—and The People Formerly Known as the Audience, which includes you and me. As curators of our own little chunks of the Web, we decide what's worthwhile; we decide what deserves exhibit space in our galleries. And as contributors, we become curators of our own work as well.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of 'popularity begetting popularity'.

The problem of noise in the system is likely to worsen with increased participation, but as curators we don't have to contribute to it. For anyone with a blog, there's a certain pressure to keep the thing going at all costs; the old publish or perish influence remains in effect on the Net. Better to spend a few extra minutes—or hours, if that's what it takes—considering the relative merits of the new exhibit, instead of merely filling space on the gallery walls. As for that popularity feedback-loop . . . well, some things just take a bit longer to work out.



Do not see meHere in the States we're gearing up for tomorrow's holiday, which is variously known as Turkey Day, Gobble Fest, Football & Yams, or simply Thanksgiving to the traditionalists. It's our most important holiday in some ways, because (1) we get to pig out with impunity, (2) it's a lot cheaper than the holidays coming up next month, and (3) we can begin to phase into Holiday Mode without actually mortgaging our homes, which we'll be doing shortly (see #2 above).

Most of our schools have been closed this week, which gives the kids a break from homework, or in some cases the opportunity to catch up on all the homework they forgot to do before and which is now the only way to avoid flunking out entirely. For the teachers—particularly those in middle-school exile—it's a week without drama and also offers the opportunity to check into rehab, or simply stay at home and self-medicate. For parents it's a week during which to reexamine the idea of holiday camp, which is exactly like the one during the warmer months, with the same benefits of peace and tranquility.

For many, tomorrow's holiday also marks the beginning of our traditional Festival of Watts, which is where we climb ladders in an effort to attach as many colored bulbs to our houses as possible. In this way, we (1) anger our neighbors, and (2) ensure lavish gifts for the families of our local utilities executives. It's also a time for contemplation, mostly by those languishing in hospital wards after falling from said ladders while discovering the cruel truth of Ohm's Law, which states that electrical current always takes the path of least resistance, notably through wet boots and gloves.

Probably the most important aspect of this holiday, however, is the opportunity it affords to get together with our families. The long lines we endure at airports—or the endless driving to other states—seem well worth it when we're greeted by the open arms of our loved ones. Sometimes the love lasts only as long as everyone is able to sustain the façade, which may be anywhere from three days to three minutes, depending on the relative level of dysfunction, and rage. Grandma Oon may be a sweet old lady to most people, but that's only because they've never seen her blow the Thanksgiving turkey to bits with a shotgun after your drunken uncle cracked wise about her culinary skills.

But at the bottom of it all lies the real reason for Thanksgiving, which is, of course, thankfulness. A plate of food isn't an option for everyone, and some people don't have a place on which to hang lights at all. For many, the concept of family is something they read about in a book—something reserved for the fortunate others. And school isn't always a safe place to gather knowledge; sometimes it's a place of fear and misunderstanding. Those of us still capable of seeing a bit of humor in tomorrow's holiday are fortunate, because there sure are a lot of people who cannot.


Slow Motion

SlomoDuring moments of extreme danger, it's said, the world goes into slow motion. This is the sort of thing that could be easily dismissed as legend, or perhaps an attempt to dramatize for the sake of a better story. But it happened to me once, so I know it's true. I think it's the mind's amazing way of giving us more time to think our way out of a bad situation when seconds are all we have to work with. Accidentally riding a motorcycle off a cliff is a good example of that kind of situation.

I'd been riding dirt bikes in the same area for years, so it wasn't like I didn't know there was a cliff. There were trails that skirted the edge of it, and everyone knew it was there; it was just something you avoided, like a barbwire fence or a tree. I'm not exactly sure what was different about that particular day, but when I flew down the hill toward the cliff—same as a hundred times before—I wasn't able to slow the bike in time to make the normal course adjustment to the right, away from the cliff. Maybe the rear tire had less tread than I thought, or maybe I was moving faster than I usually did, but on this day I didn't make that slight turn to the right, and rode straight out into thin air.

My buddy was right behind me, and he says I just disappeared over the edge. But from my vantage point, things happened differently. Just as I was going over the handlebar, time slowed to a crawl. I noticed the change in the color of the dirt at the bottom of the ravine, and the way the sun was reflected from the little stream that ran through the middle of it. The landing zone seemed okay; there were no cactus, or jagged pieces of metal. I seemed to be rotating, slowly, as I fell through space; I began twisting my body so I could see the motorcycle following me in. I thought it would be wise, probably, to move my head to the side just a bit, thereby avoiding the front tire at the moment of impact. I was marveling at the blueness of the sky when . . .

Wham! I land on my back and right shoulder, and my head is already moving itself away from the path of the motorcycle's front tire. A split second later, it meets the dirt a few inches from my face. I lie there, stunned, contemplating the damage. My friend's eyes appear at the edge of the precipice, uncharacteristically concerned. It isn't the first time he's seen me wipe out, but this one is just plain weird.

No broken bones, no permanent tissue damage, and the head still works—more or less. But how remarkable the mind's dedication to simple survival, even if that requires altering the perception of time.


State of the Blog

omegaword.comFirst of all, my sincere apologies for all the update pings that went out during the weekend. The new template handles certain HTML elements differently than the two previous ones I had used, resulting in line-spacing problems in the first paragraph of 18 posts all the way back to June; some had to be reloaded and some were fixed in place, but there was a whole lot of tinkering going on. During the first iteration of Saturday's repair exercise, I shut down the feeds and notification pings—and at one point brought the blog down entirely—specifically to prevent this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the exercise dragged on much longer than I had anticipated, and at some point I lost track of what I had shut down and what had been brought back on line. Anyway, the buggered posts have been fixed, and it shan't happen again.

In other news, the new tags capability has resulted in some interesting changes to what's picked up, and by whom. Those of you who've been using them for eons won't be surprised, but it seems the simple addition of a carefully worded tag can result in a post's appearance in rather unexpected places—in the bowels of a specialized research database, for example. It's amazing what some of the aggregators will pick up based on a single word used as a tag. In sharp contrast to the semantics-based, contextual sifting of content by engines such as Google's, this is more like vacuuming up every object that displays a particular label, regardless of what might really be inside. Used as intended, tags are a simple, effective way to categorize, collect, and display specific content. But the potential for abuse is enormous as well, and the spammers, of course, realized that right away.

It took Technorati a bit longer to figure it out, and now that they aren't erroneously counting spam-blogs as legitimate creations—at least not as much—the numbers have leveled out somewhat. David Sifry puts the current total at over 57 million, with about 100,000 new blogs every day. Some 55% are considered active, which in this case means they've been updated at least once in the last three months.

Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the blogosphere, this one has rocketed from August's 1,669,958th place in Technorati's rankings to the current position of 816,700. Needless to say, I no longer feel the overwhelming urge to vomit. Now I just want to curl up in a little ball and cry. Despite Mr. Sifry's advisory to the contrary, I remain convinced that the low authority category means just that: blogs in this group are unlikely to influence public opinion in any meaningful way.

For those of you who are new to Technorati's ranking systems, we establish a blog's authority (or influence) by tracking the number of distinct blogs that link to it over the past 6 months. In this chart, we've looked at folks with at least 3 links or more and grouped them into four separate categories. In total, we're looking at about 1.5 million blogs of the 57 million total. Even though I labeled the first group as the "Low Authority" group, given that these people are in the top 2% of all of the blogs that exist, the concept of "low" is purely in relation to the other groups above.

I was sure I'd be in first place by now. So much for world domination.

No doubt you've noticed the addition of the favorites list, which the new Blogger version makes far easier to implement. No need for insertions in the HTML anymore; it's a simple dialogue-box operation now. I think I'm done tweaking for a while.



The Blue TriangleThe Clinic

The ringing in my ears, the disgusting cough, the way people in restaurants move to other tables. All are hints of a sinus infection too long neglected, so I decide it's time for a visit to my friendly neighborhood clinic. After the customary weight, ear-temperature and blood pressure checks, I'm left alone in the examining room to ponder a three-dimensional plastic representation of the human digestive system. I'm halfway between the spleen and the large intestine when the PA bursts in, cheerful as always, and begins leafing through my chart. She wonders, aloud, how I'm doing; I tell her I've been better, and at the same time, worse. Unfazed, she listens to my breathing sounds with the stethoscope she happens to have hanging around her neck. Satisfied that air is moving in and out, she shines a light in my nose, then returns to my chart to document her findings.

She prescribes an antibiotic, and also mentions the name of a new decongestant I can easily—and more inexpensively—obtain at the local supermarket. I recognize the name; I've seen it on display in a number of stores. Thanking the PA for her time and attention, I leave with a new sense of joy over my impending return to good health.

The Pharmacy

Pushing my cart through the pharmacy aisle at the supermarket, I notice several prominent displays near the decongestant products. A new medical remedy always receives more than the ordinary level of attention, I think, especially this time of year when so many are suffering the indignities of colds, coughs, and related plagues. Contemplating the decongestants, my eye falls on the recommended product. Not exactly cheap. Immediately to its left the generic equivalent beckons; the difference in price is impossible to ignore. Having left my reading glasses in the car, I can make out only one word on the package by virtue of its extra-large print: Mucus. Stifling a cough, I toss the box into my cart and move off in search of toothpaste.

As I pass the pharmacy window, a woman in a white coat is watching me intently. She isn't smiling, and her head is moving slowly from side to side. She seems to be mouthing a word, silently, as if someone might overhear. I think the word is mucus, but then she begins to make wet, gurgling sounds, like an amplified fish tank. I quicken my pace, heading for the checkout. Strangers everywhere, I think, and now they're behind the pharmacy counter, too.

The Horror

Back in the car, I start the engine and wait for warm air from the heater. I think about the checkout clerk, and the way he laughed when he rang up the box of decongestants. With my glasses on I can read the box now, but it's only one word over and over where the dosage instructions should be, and everywhere else, too. Same word as the one printed extra large on the front. I look at the receipt; it only says mucus tabs, followed by the price. Whatever. I open the box, and pop the lid off the white plastic container. Big blue tablets. They look more like candy, I think, reaching for my water bottle. May as well start decongesting now. I swallow one, then another, and back out of the parking space. In the mirror, three people in white lab coats are watching me, but when I look over my shoulder three birds fly away. I exit the parking lot and head for home.

Driving toward the setting sun, I notice a bluish tint that seems to be coloring everything inside the car, although through the windows objects appear as they always do. At a red light, I take off my sunglasses and rub my eyes, but this doesn't affect the phenomenon at all. I put the sunglasses on again and wait for the light to change. But the green light never appears; instead, it changes from red to blue. I begin to cough, lightly at first, then uncontrollably. Behind me, horns blare as drivers lose patience. My coughing blends with the horns until there's only one sound, a cacophony of tones perfectly mixed and synchronized with the amplified wet gurgling of a fish tank.

The windshield is covered with an unnamable sludge, and I attempt to activate the wipers although my entire body is convulsing from the uninterrupted coughing. Somehow I find the switch, but the sludge is on the inside; it's mucus, which I've been expelling in revolting volume through my mouth and nose. I'm suddenly nauseous and roll down the window, but a crowd has gathered and small children are peering at me—one is only inches away from my face. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and offers it to me; I gratefully accept. He begins to sing a song, but the sound is coming from the radio in the car. It's Lou Reed's New Sensations, and I comment on the lad's fine rendition of it.

The Cure

I open my door and get out of the car, but I'm not in traffic anymore; instead, I seem to be all alone on a desolate plain. No hills or trees or grass, or features of any kind for that matter. No people, or houses. I notice a dirty cloud on the horizon, like a sandstorm, which appears to be growing rapidly as if moving toward me at a high rate of speed. The ground begins to tremble. I realize I'm in the path of a herd of stampeding buffalo and begin looking for a place of safety, but there's no such place. I decide the best way to handle the situation is by holding up one hand and saying "Stop!" in a very loud voice. I do this, and the cloud—which by now has arrived—immediately dissipates, along with the thundering hooves. Directly in front of me is a large rabbit with an even larger drum bearing the Energizer logo. He asks me if I need a ride. I reply that I thought he was a buffalo herd, and begin to apologize for making him stop. In a quavering falsetto, he interrupts me with a string of Latin words, which I don't understand. He begins to beat his drum, slowly at first, but then so rapidly that the drumsticks become a blur and the drumbeats a steady tone. The rabbit disappears in a cloud of dust, but this time there are no thundering hooves; there's only an unwavering musical note that gradually fades to silence as the cloud moves toward the horizon, and then is gone.

I start at the sound of my name. The nurse is wondering whether I'd like to come in, or just stay in the waiting room and sleep. She smiles. I rub my eyes as I stand, and move toward the doorway on unsteady legs. I tell her it's the mucus tablets; they make me sleepy. She nods. "Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease," she quips. After the customary weight, ear-temperature and blood pressure checks, I'm left alone in the examining room to ponder a three-dimensional plastic representation of the human digestive system. I'm halfway between the spleen and the large intestine when the PA bursts in, cheerful as always, and begins leafing through my chart. She wonders, aloud, how I'm doing; I tell her I've been better, and at the same time, worse. Unfazed, she listens to my breathing sounds with the stethoscope she happens to have hanging around her neck. Satisfied that air is moving in and out, she shines a light in my nose, then returns to my chart to document her findings. Outside the office window, three birds form a blue triangle in the sky.


AIAI . . . oh . . . no . . . nooooooo!!!!!!!

AI 3.0Just when you thought it was safe to forget about Artificial Intelligence, here it comes again. Except this time we're calling it Web 3.0, just to avoid confusion with the old AI moniker. After all, that one didn't turn out so very well, and people would probably just roll their eyes at you if you tried to revive it again now. But it's okay, because this new term has the web-word in it, so we'll just skip right over that outdated Web 2.0 nonsense and get down to some real business here.

Remember expert systems? Somewhere back in the swirling mists of time—in the year nineteen hundred and eighty, say—there was a bit of excitement over tangible products engineered using the somewhat esoteric principles of AI. Expert systems, it was said, would learn by doing, and after the initial training period, they would do stuff on their own. Amazing stuff. They were rule-based systems, and once they learned the rules, they would do stuff with those rules, and we would be amazed. It was, you know, artificially intelligent. And amazing.

I don't remember exactly how long I fooled around with expert systems, and LISP, and whatever else I could get my hands on at the time before I gave up on the idea. I bought Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, and I tried to understand everything Dr. Hofstadter had written. But that was harder still, and eventually I became resigned to the ideas that (1) I wasn't sufficiently intelligent to make use of material written by guys who invent their own calculus, and (2) incessant nosebleeds are my brain's way of telling me to stick with Mad magazine. I won't say I learned nothing from the book, nor do I consider all the hours I spent on doomed programming languages wasted time. Exactly how much sank in is debatable, but something did, and I don't think it did me any harm.

The harm, if it comes, will have more to do with the disillusioning effects of grand ideas before their time. Here it's nearly 2007, and the promise of Artificial Intelligence is once again thrust into our now-cynical consciousness. To be sure, software has come a long way in the last 25 years, and the hardware may actually be fast enough now to make the whole idea of quasi-intelligent machines seem intriguing all over again. Web everything together, and who knows what might sputter to life among the sticky strands.

Maybe nothing will. Maybe we're a little tired of the idea that bandwidth is power. As consumers, we're already yawning at the processor cycle-time wars; there's more to life than computer games, or at least there ought to be. Maybe it's cooler to be alive than it is to live, vicariously, in an e-box.

I'd bet the future is less the Matrix than Soylent Green. Less semantic fuzz than social discovery. Less artificial intelligence than human intelligence. Less automation and more augmentation. Wandering around the Web 2.0 Summit I saw more presentations using 3.0 than I can enunummerate. Some were about more immersive platforms, some desire the singularity, but most just wanted to be new and cool.

So says Ross Mayfield at WebProNews, who apparently doesn't believe in the whole Web 3.0 thing at all. Maybe he's just hungry.

On the other hand, maybe something has already sputtered to life and we just didn't notice. Google's algorithms already confound many; how do they arrive at those page-ranking numbers, really? If 3.0 is all about understanding the data, it seems those who have been knee-deep in it all along would already be halfway there, and perhaps nearer.


One Kid's Experience in Public School

An apple for the teacherNot everyone is thrilled with the public-school experience. Overcrowded classrooms, overworked staff, and students who'd rather be just about anywhere else are some of the more common complaints I've heard, and read, from parents who have kids in the public school system. As the parent of a student now on the final leg of her journey through that system, I can sympathize. But I can't empathize, really, because for some reason our experience has been decidedly more positive than otherwise.

Last night, my daughter told me she had e-mailed a number of teachers from her past—those she was able to track down anyway—just to say hello, and maybe exchange notes on current events in their respective lives. A few responded almost immediately, evidently having been at their computers when the message arrived. Some had moved into entirely new curricula, and some were teaching at different schools; others were exactly where they had been during my daughter's time in their classrooms. But none had any difficulty placing their former student, even though it's been well over ten years in some cases. Teachers' pet, maybe? Not really. When I think back to those early years, the consistent elements are honesty, fairness, and integrity; those are the attributes of the teachers who've made all the difference. The same elements define my daughter's personality, and it's this commonality, I think, that's permitted the kind of warm, personal bond that continues to characterize my daughter's relationships with her teachers even now, during her senior year of high school.

Some teachers have a negative reputation among the students, which typically involves labels such as "tough," "mean," "unfair," or some similarly disparaging term. Sometimes the terminology is considerably more vulgar, but you get the idea. Interestingly, those are the very teachers with whom my daughter has so often found the best relationships. Their assignments may be demanding and their rules firm, but fairness has never been an issue, and the related traits of honesty and integrity generally manifest themselves as well. In fact, I can think of one in particular—no, make that several—who went beyond the call of duty and squarely into the realm of fearless advocate. What an excellent example for my young student. What an excellent example for us all.

To be sure, a student's positive public-school experience isn't entirely up to the teacher; there has to be something coming from the student, and also from that student's parents. It's a group effort, and more than mere serendipity. Students who spend the bulk of their time watching TV aren't likely to be reading at the same time, and reading happens to be a crucial element in any educational context, public or private. And while there are obvious benefits associated with a well-funded school district versus one that's struggling to provide the essentials, this doesn't entirely account for the difference, either. My daughter has attended public schools on both ends of that spectrum, and found the same honesty, fairness, and integrity among teachers in both.

And yet, I know it isn't quite that simple. Sometimes you can do everything just right and still wind up living in a world where everything goes terribly wrong. While it's abundantly obvious that single parents can provide the sort of environment in which students thrive, anyone in that situation knows how challenging it is to be in several places at once, and more challenging yet, to assume the role of more than one person. As a single parent, I know something about that. And for many, this is only the tip of the iceberg; there are problems entirely beyond the scope of outstanding public-school teachers, or competent parenting, or even a lack of money in some cases.

Anyway, from one proud parent to all the public-school teachers out there who've made all the difference: Thanks! We couldn't have done it without you.


Meet the New Blog, Again

Haven't we met?Yesterday seemed like a good day to throw caution to the wind and do the rest of the blog-upgrade chores I'd been putting off for fear of losing everything, and having to then essentially start over from scratch. As it turns out, I needn't have worried; with the exception of a couple minor HTML insertions in the template, it was mostly a drag-and-drop, button pushing operation.

Aside from the colors and associated layout changes, one of the upgrades is that natty topic index over there on the right. In conjunction with the new labels capability, this ought to make navigation much easier. The archive remains fundamentally the same, with the exception of those post-count numbers. There are other ways to display the archive now, too, but I think this method will work for the present; there really aren't enough posts at this point to make the other options particularly interesting.

You've probably noticed the absence of the previous posts list, but at the bottom of the currently displayed posts is an easy way to continue reading the previous stuff, so no loss there. I'm still keeping posts displayed on the main page to a minimum, since not everyone has a fast connection. The addition of the Atom subscription link—also at the bottom—is another positive change. The new version of Blogger makes it exceptionally easy to add various types of page elements, so things like favorites-lists and possibly even content from external sources may appear at some point.

Sometimes change only creates the illusion of improvement, but to me, the whole thing looks better. It may be my imagination, but the line spacing appears to have increased a bit; it just seems easier to read now. Other improvements aren't as apparent, as I mentioned last week when I made the initial jump to the new version of Blogger. Evidently, the previous version had been around for some years and was straining under the load. But the more modern methods used in the new version—e.g. serving database content as needed, instead of republishing the entire blog each time it changes—result in a faster response, on my end as well as yours.

There are security enhancements, too, although that probably isn't a concern to readers. Still, I think it's interesting that Google's blogging platform incorporates better security than some of the others that aren't free, or that perhaps require some sort of involvement with advertisements or similarly irritating things. But then, anyone who's used Google's equally free e-mail product already knows something about their position on security matters.

In any event, if you happen to notice a glitch or otherwise spot something amiss—or maybe just something in need of improvement—I hope you'll let me know. And those of you using the old version of Blogger: unless you've made a lot of changes to your template, the move to Blogger-in-beta really doesn't take all that much time and effort. Really.


Why We Need SINN In Our Lives: A Modest Proposal

Like a splinter in your mindThis week's elections have resulted in sweeping changes to the political landscape, and widespread happy-dancing throughout the realm. However, the obvious shortcomings in our voting process should be addressed now, before the upcoming presidential race is in full swing. Although it isn't feasible, yet, to cast our votes using the Internet—security and identification issues prevent it—it's only a matter of time before those technical problems are resolved, resulting in a streamlined voting process for everyone. But really, why stop there? Recent advances in genetic theory and practice combined with nanotechnology could spell the end of voter frustration, while doing away with the need for things like term limits, the Electoral College, and impeachment proceedings.

I'm referring, of course, to the Symbiotic Implantable Neural Network, or SINN. The SINN would be implanted between the frontal lobes, and once activated, would quickly establish a symbiotic relationship with the host's neurological processes. In effect, they would become one. In addition to the SINN's extraordinary processing capabilities, its imbedded millimeter-wave transceiver would allow communications with a range of similarly equipped devices. Politicians, for example.

The SINN-enabled voter would be free of the mundane chores we currently associate with our voting process. Things like voter registration would become a thing of the past; the SINN would automate the process, allowing the voter to concentrate on more important issues like lunch, or football. But the greatest benefit would be evident at election time, because . . . well, because there wouldn't be an election time. By virtue of its uninterrupted contact with the host, the SINN would fully automate the voting process; the host would have only to think about politics, thereby bringing the SINN online. Once out of its quiescent state, the SINN would continually monitor the host's thoughts, and upon detecting dissatisfaction with any incumbent politician, instantly transmit a vote for someone generating more positive thoughts in that voter's mind.

The concept of term limits would be relegated to the scrap pile of history, too. With SINNs, a politician's term might be anywhere from two days to 70 years, depending on voter satisfaction. The newly elected representative who reneges on campaign promises would find his term severely truncated, while the effective, likeable politician could remain in office forever—or until retirement, whichever occurs first.

Using SINNs, other outdated concepts could be ejected as well. The Electoral College would quickly slip into oblivion, because for the first time, every vote would count. Votes would be applied directly to the candidate, instead of wasting time—and obscene amounts of money—on conventions and those who attend them.

Impeachment proceedings would be unnecessary. Renegade presidents, by virtue of their own implanted SINNs, would simply cease to function in any meaningful way. While rudimentary processes would persist—the ability to eat and walk would remain intact—any attempt to continue in a presidential capacity would result in the uncontrollable impulse to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on prime-time news programs.

As you can see, SINNs represent an elegant solution to a variety of problems associated with our current political system. And as you might expect, their utility could be easily extended to related areas of concern. Talk-show hosts, bloggers, and certain clergy would be prime candidates for Symbiotic Implantable Neural Networks, especially during the time leading up to our next election.


How Do We Learn to Miscommunicate?

Bad audio"Writing," said my misguided young friend, "is passé. Who needs spelling and grammar when we have podcasts? It's easier; it's faster; it's better! You dinosaurs with your keyboards . . . dude, you're on your way out."

It could happen, I guess. If the rumors are true, the average American high-school student's abysmal test scores point to devolution; our written language is suffering, and its current trajectory suggests a hard landing in some inaccessible wasteland just beyond the horizon. Really, it would be a relief in some ways. Endless typing gives way to effortless babbling; no more carpal-tunneled misery under a bare bulb in the time-honored writer's cubby. Freedom at last.

At the little sandwich shop where I frequently stop for lunch, the recent high-school graduate is insolent, as usual. She looks up as I enter; her dimpled, megawatt smile means she's about to say something adorably impudent.

"I'll shake you!" she says, her smile disappearing abruptly in mock seriousness.

I have to laugh. This isn't the sort of phrase you hear every day, and the delivery is perfect. She reminds me of my own daughter, who's about the same age. Attitude. I love it.

A couple weeks later—same sandwich shop, same girl—the disturbing truth comes out. I'm standing at the counter watching her make a customer's sandwich. I smile, remembering the inimitable phrase.

"What's so funny?" she asks. Feigned irritation.

"I'll shake you," I reply. "That was crazy."

A look of confusion. "No," she says. "You said 'shake'."

"Yeah. Shake."

"No! Shake!"

Now I'm confused. We're arguing over the same word. Twilight Zone.

"Right," I say. I spell it out. "S, h, a, k, e."

Her turn to spell. "S, h, a, n, k. I'll shank you!"

Crud. She was threatening to kill me. Not so adorable, maybe.

"Oh," I say. "I knew it. You have been in prison, then."

"Whatever," she replies.

Later, I inspect my sandwich for tiny shards of glass. Tuna probably wasn't the best choice; too easy to hide stuff in there. On the other hand, a few drops of the right substance would be undetectable on a slice of bread. Too late to worry now, I think, chewing my food.

That evening I return to my keyboard with a new sense of purpose. Writing is passé? Hardly. When it really matters, there's just no substitute for the written word. Throughout history, ambiguity and misunderstanding have been avoided—and, no doubt, countless tragedies narrowly averted—because competent grammar and spelling don't permit the sort of miscommunication that makes all the difference between adorable, and something less.

Meet the New Blog

Zen ArrowsAfter the past couple days' technical problems, I decided to make the leap to the new, improved version of Blogger. It's still in the beta-test phase, which was the primary reason for my procrastination, and I subscribe to the old if it works don't fix it school of thought besides. But having made the switch—and assuming no unforeseen glitches in the day-to-day operation—my only regret is not having done it sooner.

From my vantage point the new blog looks the same as the old blog, with the exception of those tags below some of the posts now. It's going to take some time to go back and categorize them all, especially when I have to (1) read each one, and (2) attempt to figure out what, if anything, I was trying to say. But at some point there'll be a list of categories off to the side somewhere, which will be a useful improvement, not to mention the relief I'll feel at being a bit more up to date in the blogospheric scheme of things. I'd been eyeing some of the blogs with a mixture of envy and contempt—I wanted a nifty subject index, too—but no more.

There are a raft of improvements beyond this new ability to use tags, although some aren't as easily quantified. You can't see things like increased reliability, but they become obvious over time by the absence of grief. Legend has it I probably wouldn't have experienced the aforementioned technical problems at all, had I only made the switch earlier.

Anyway, this is the first day of the rest of my blog. If things look a bit odd from time to time, it's because I'm messing about with some new feature, or otherwise attempting to bring the blog up to speed in its new and improved Blogger-in-beta incarnation. At least that's the theory. The practice may be against it, because not only is the devil in the details, but also in the network, and the links, and the HTML, and especially in the monster burritos I so foolishly consume, sometimes, before I sit down at the computer.


The School as ISP, Four-letter Words, and Content Filtering

Orbiting the periphery of last week's discussion of students' free speech are a few ancillary issues that may be worth noting. The first contains a bit of irony. As it happens, the more a school involves itself in online student media, the greater the possibility of liability for undesirable content. This odd circumstance is due to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which draws a line between content as it arrives on a public system versus the same content after editing or similar alteration after it arrives. For example, libelous comments posted on a school-sponsored site don't automatically create liability for the school, but editing or otherwise manipulating those comments may subject the school to legal responsibility. While it seems this scenario has yet to be tested in the courts—at least in the context of a public-school system—the underlying logic of playing a part in the creation of the material could be easily extended to school-sponsored media. In effect, the school is acting as an Internet Service Provider. Part two of the Student Press Law Center's Student Media Guide to Internet Law describes the problem.

The Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) grants immunity to ISPs in libel and privacy suits involving their subscribers. Recent cases interpreting the CDA have found that even where ISPs do examine and discover defamatory content, they retain their immunity and are under no obligation to remove or retract such statements. Unless there are compelling facts proving otherwise, ISPs are to be regarded automatically as common carriers, just as a telephone company or library would be, and any knowledge they have concerning their subscribers' expression is irrelevant.

By contrast, a school that does exercise content control (rewording/rewriting articles, making affirmative decisions to publish, etc.) over student media could be legally responsible for what is published.

As I mentioned in a previous monologue, the same issues arise whether the material in question is posted on a Web site, a blog, or some other type of public forum—it doesn't have to be electronic—but I won't further belabor the subject here. I will, however, add one small point for the sake of historical curiosity, from the SPLC's Know Your Cybershield.

The CDA was also designed to regulate "obscene" and "indecent" material on the Internet by making it a crime to transmit such material to minors. Section 230 was to ensure that ISPs taking steps to to screen out "obscene and "indecent" material would not be treated as publishers for content created by others. The CDA's regulation of indecent material was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU,521 U.S. 844 (1997), but Section 230 remains.

Another issue affecting the success or failure of students' free speech is the definition of obscenity, and also how it's applied in the context of minors in the public school system. Although the use of profanity, vulgarity, and generally tasteless and offensive speech is protected under first-amendment law, the presence of minors in the high-school setting may reduce this protection. And while the tendency toward unbridled use of expletives is obvious and may even be considered normal contemporary communication by some, the educational value of profanity is difficult to prove. The Supreme Court's obscenity test is divided into three elements—prurient interest, depiction or description of sexual conduct, and the lack of literary, artistic, political, or scientific value—but leaves open such variables as contemporary community standards, what constitutes a reasonable person, and the definitions used by individual states. From the SPLC CyberGuide:

The Supreme Court's test for obscenity involves three elements: (1) whether a reasonable person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient (lustful) interest, (2) whether the work depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined as obscene by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Mere offensive content, such as profane language or ideas, is not obscene under the Supreme Court standard.

When it comes to minors the standards are widened, although certain variables remain similarly undefined. What might be considered "patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole" is uncertain, and perhaps intentionally so.

However, a similar but slightly broader definition of obscenity has been applied to cases involving minors. In 1968, the Court in Ginsberg v. New York defined obscenity involving minors as any description or representation of nudity or sexual conduct that (1) predominantly appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors, (2) is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors, and (3) is utterly without redeeming social importance for minors. Thus, a high school online underground publication, especially if viewed on campus, could run into obscenity problems even if the same material would not be considered obscene outside of school or on a college campus.

While it doesn't directly affect their freedom of speech, students' access to information is a related—and no less historical—issue in the context of school censorship. Like public libraries, public schools have been the target of various censorship campaigns over the years, and not always from external groups. Sometimes—according to part one of the Student Media Guide to Internet Law—it comes from a board of education. This one occurred in 1982.

One possibility is that courts will view the Internet as an information resource similar to a library and look to past library censorship cases for guidance. In Board of Education v. Pico, a board of education ordered high school officials to remove books from the school library that the board deemed inappropriate, including books the board claimed were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." In Pico, a plurality—but not a majority—of the Supreme Court held that the board had selected books for removal in a "narrowly partisan or political manner" and the board's action was therefore unconstitutional.

Citing Pico, a federal court in 1998 suggested in dicta that a public library's (not a school library) decision to block access to certain Web sites based on content alone could be viewed as the equivalent of removing particular books from the library shelves. Such content-oriented "removal," the court stated, would probably be unconstitutional.

In the spirit of the educational imperative and the relative youth of its readers, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect the shelves of a high-school library to contain everything available at a public library. And if the Internet is in the category of information resource, it would be equally unreasonable to expect the school to allow unfettered access, especially considering the Net's notorious reach into the darkest aspects of humanity.

However, the court also noted that while overt content-discrimination is not allowed by a public library, sites might be blocked by schools if the substance of the site is not suitable to education, for example, if the site is laden with "pervasive vulgarity." In what appears to be an extension of the Hazelwood analysis to the Internet context, the court in dicta suggested that school officials at the high school level may enjoy broad discretion in what they may block, as long as the rationale for doing is educationally sound and not based on the fact that they disagree with a particular message.

Obviously, the subject of constitutional freedoms is complex, and interpretation of the law far more so. But contrary to the tone of the article that launched this discussion in the first place, it isn't a simple matter for school officials to "reach into students' home computers." Despite the current climate of privacy concerns weighed against security in our schools, there remain a few fundamental rules that protect even our youngest citizens from the unreasonable efforts of certain misguided overseers.


Why Johnny Won His Case

Johnny learns to litigateAt this point in the discussion of students' free-speech rights, the question becomes one of how far school administrators can extend their sphere of influence before running afoul of constitutional law. The right to censor student expression, while by no means absolute, is greater during school hours or where students are otherwise involved in a school-sponsored activity. Homework, for example, remains under school jurisdiction regardless of where it's executed; the fact the student is at home while completing an assignment doesn't reduce the school's interest in it. In a similar way, football teams and cheerleading squads don't automatically gain full autonomy when they travel to a neighboring campus; they represent their school regardless of physical proximity.

But when a student isn't involved in any school-sponsored activity or classwork and is at home using personal resources and a network that has no relationship to any school, it isn't appropriate—or legal for that matter—for the school administration to attempt to censor that student's expression. And yet, it appears this is exactly what some administrators have attempted to do, although not with great success. It seems school officials frequently act on the misguided notion that disagreement is forbidden, and disparaging or offensive comments made by students are nothing more than insolent behavior that deserves punishment. Because disagreement is a fundamental right under constitutional law, the courts—when the situation is escalated to that level—naturally find in favor of the student, sometimes at considerable expense to the educational institution. Assuming there's no on-campus access or distribution—or the intent to do so—off-campus expression can't be censored by school officials no matter how much they might disagree with it, according to part one of the Student Press Law Center's Student Media Guide to Internet Law.

Students, like all citizens, have strong First Amendment protection when it comes to expressing themselves off-campus. Public school officials cannot legally censor or punish a student for posting a personal homepage or weblog, publishing a Web-based "zine" or using a personal account to send e-mail outside of school from a home computer, even if the subject matter of the site is school-related or offensive. However, if the student accesses the Web site at school or urges others to do so, that activity could be treated no differently than any on-campus distribution of an independent publication.

As the final sentence above indicates, this new concept of school boundaries takes into account the ethereal properties of the new media. Unlike a traditional newspaper or book, a Web site may not be manifested in physical space, but its content can be equally disruptive to the educational environment. Perhaps more so, considering its reach and the difficulties involved in monitoring and controlling access. In fact, with the advent of personal, pocketable Web browsers, the problem may have less to do with Internet access in the classroom or library than with students carrying wireless access points in their jeans. It isn't difficult to imagine court cases that explore campus use of students' portable Web browsers versus those provided by the school; it will be interesting to see where the line is drawn when Web access occurs at school, but doesn't rely on school-provided networks or hardware to do it.

In any event, the underlying principles of law are unlikely to change, regardless of technological advances and how they affect our communication. While the schools' frustration at the unbridled—and sometimes blatantly offensive—expression of some students is understandable, it certainly isn't new. As anyone involved with middle- or high-school students can attest, the limits of convention are no barrier to youth; in fact, those limits seem specifically engineered for destruction by subsequent generations. College students may enjoy greater expressive leeway than their younger counterparts, but both are protected under first-amendment law. And while the Internet may appear to have alarmingly altered the landscape, it's really just another vehicle for the transport of free speech. As many school officials have already discovered, the disquieting fact that students' negative opinions about their teachers or other staff can now instantaneously flood the planet doesn’t justify misapplication of the law. That isn't why Johnny goes to school.


Balancing Free Expression

Freedom and OrderSince the Internet is viewed as merely another transport medium for written speech, and assuming the student hasn't libeled, threatened, advocated, effected or propagated criminal activity or materially disrupted the educational environment, what's left that might restrict a student's right to free expression?

Attending a private school could dramatically limit that right. Government funding requires adherence to constitutional principles, but privately-funded education has no such requirement; although a private school may willingly follow those principles, it's a matter of discretion, not law. Where such an institution has adopted a policy of free expression and formalized it in writing, there may be a contractual obligation. State law may also have an effect. But in general, the first-amendment protections available to students in public education don't apply to students attending private schools, so the discussion specifically addresses the former. More information on this subject can be found in the Student Press Law Center’s packet Press Freedom at Private Schools.

It may also be worthwhile to note, in passing, the difference between publication and broadcast. Because the Supreme Court has equated online media with traditional print, this discussion also doesn't apply to student-run radio stations. Where a podcast might fall in the scheme of things is debatable, although reason and logic would suggest a greater similarity to broadcast, program-selection issues aside. In any case, broadcasters enjoy far less protection under the law than do publishers of print or online media.

Probably the most important distinction affecting students' free-speech rights has to do with whether or not they're involved in a school-sponsored publishing activity, and if so, whether that activity has been designated a public forum. Part one of the SPLC's Student Media Guide to Internet Law defines the term.

A publication, online or otherwise, is a public forum when students are given, with limited exceptions, the right to control content. If the school has established a "policy or practice" of allowing free expression by allowing student editors to control the content of the online edition, the forum is open and students continue to have editorial control.

Alternatively, if an online edition has not yet been established, the answer will depend on whether the school allows the publication to be designated as a public forum.

In the absence of any clear school policy, the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier can be of value in—among other things—determining how the publication in question should be classified.

The Hazelwood Court listed several factors for determining the status of a publication forum where there is no clear school policy that could be analogized to the online context. Examples are (1) whether the networks are provided and paid for by the school, (2) whether the online activity is part of a class assignment where students receive academic credit for their work, and (3) whether the administration has reserved the right to choose the students’ article topics or otherwise regulate the content of the Web site. If the answer to all of these questions is "yes," your school can probably argue that your online paper is a closed forum, thus reserving significant editorial control.

Many schools and districts have adopted acceptable-use policies—and policies specifically aimed at Internet use—concerning their networks. The overall content of such policies is still governed by law, but the language may be instructive; words like privilege and right usually lie at opposite ends of the censorship spectrum.

An Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) or Internet Use Policy, often found in a student handbook or in district guidelines, sets out the rules and regulations governing student (and sometimes faculty) use of school computer networks. Looking at such a policy might help you to determine whether the network has been designated a public forum. If the policy language is cautionary, referring to access as a "privilege," and includes stringent restrictions regarding the type of communication permitted, the facilities will more likely be viewed as a non-public forum where the school has reserved the right to control the content. If the policy refers to student access as a "right," on the other hand, or if students have been permitted reasonably free access to the system, schools will have a more difficult time justifying acts of censorship.

Although the greatest control over student speech can be legally exercised when the publication is school-sponsored, operates using school-provided materials and resources, and is executed on school property, the school's authority isn't without limit. While in school, the rights of the student are reduced, but certainly not eliminated. The SPLC CyberGuide refers to the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, which acknowledged the school's need to maintain order, but also affirmed the student's right to freedom of expression.

The U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing that students have the right to express controversial political ideas, said in 1969 that students do not "shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Court made that statement in the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District -- a case that upheld public school students' First Amendment rights to wear black armbands at school in symbolic protest of the Vietnam War. "School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students," the Court wrote. "Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under the Constitution." Thus, the First Amendment's protection of free speech does not stop simply because students are in a classroom instead of on a public street.

. . . [T]he Court in Tinker implied that due to the schools' interest in maintaining order on campus, the First Amendment rights of public school children are slightly diminished while at school. Accordingly, the Court held that free-speech rights can be limited only when the speech in question "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others."

If there's any remaining confusion regarding the free-expression rights of students and the circumstances that limit those rights, the Hazelwood case may fill in some of the gaps.

[In 1988] . . . the Court decided Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, its first case specifically addressing the rights of high school student media. At the center of the case was the decision of a school principal to censor several student-written articles scheduled for print in the school newspaper. The Court distinguished the school-sponsored newspaper in Hazelwood from the armband in Tinker, pointing out that the Tinker standard applies only to non-school-sponsored activities and that the school newspaper was a school-sponsored activity.

In Hazelwood, the Court held that school officials have the right to censor school-sponsored publications as long as the censorship is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." At the same time, however, it explicitly declined to overrule or limit Tinker's implied protections for non-school-sponsored publications. The Court noted that the Hazelwood decision applies only to "school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school" -- a group that pointedly would not include independent online speech.

If school-sponsored activities and projects are subject to only limited control and censorship and students' free-speech rights are only slightly diminished while at school, it seems all the more unreasonable—and legally pointless—when administrators attempt to reach outside the schools and into the homes of students, as the USA Today article I mentioned on Tuesday implied. Really, there's a bit more to the independent online speech story, but it's going to have to wait for tomorrow.


Legal Transgressions and Material Disruption

A stable society is governed by certain fundamental principles that are easily understood, and agreed upon, by reasonable people. These elemental concepts are typically formalized by law, though reasonable people are unlikely to require it. They don't need to be told what's right and wrong; they already know the difference, and will conduct themselves accordingly. One of these fundamental concepts involves telling the truth, and more to the point of this discussion, refusing to initiate or propagate lies about someone else. The law calls this slander, or libel if it's in written form.

That's a revelation to no one, but it illustrates the frustrating simplicity of the underlying principle. It shouldn't require legal interpretation any more than the question of what constitutes a personal threat. The definition of illegal activity in general is plain: if there's a law against it, it's illegal. For the high-school student involved in publishing a paper, newsletter, Web site or blog, the basic rules of engagement are identical to those that apply to everyone: libel, threats, or involvement in illegal activity will get you in trouble. Writing about a fellow student's—or teacher's—involvement in the KKK when there's no such involvement, your desire to cause physical harm, or your intent to distribute drugs or weapons isn't considered protected speech; it's imprudent, and possibly stupid, but it isn't a first-amendment right. In any case, this legal transgression category isn't difficult to identify.

Students are subject to an additional rule, which prohibits causing material disruption to the orderly affairs of an educational institution. What constitutes disruption is the subject of debate, and a question that frequently requires interpretation and resolution by the courts. According to the Student Press Law Center's CyberGuide, certain categories of expression generally aren't considered materially disruptive.

In the Internet context, "material disruption" has been found not to include harsh criticisms of school, teachers, and administrators or the posting of mock obituaries as a joke between a group of friends.

On the other hand, encouraging other students to violate school rules, calls for walkouts or protests, or false announcements of cancelled classes are examples of actions that could be considered materially disruptive to a school's learning environment. Ridicule or humiliation, whether aimed at students or staff, may result in disruption as well.

Pointed ridicule or statements aimed at humiliating particular groups of students or individuals can play into the hands of school officials as well, who may argue that such insults may lead to disruptions at school. Case-in-point is again J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, where the court found that the student's depiction of his teacher's head dripping with blood and morphing into Hitler along with an invitation for readers to contribute to the hiring of a hit man caused her to be too afraid to return to school. The court found that the site was disruptive enough to make necessary the hiring of a substitute for the [remainder] of the school year.

There are other points to consider, of course. School sponsorship of the student's written efforts, whether the school is public or private, and educational level—e.g. high school versus college—make a world of difference in how the law is applied.