Enter the Dragon

No martial arts hereNo, I haven't succeeded in reanimating Bruce Lee, but I'm a little bit excited just the same. My wayward parcel turned up, finally, and in it was a disk containing Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-recognition software. I've played with this sort of application in the past, but none of it was really usable as a substitute for the keyboard. But based purely on initial impressions, this one may actually work.

NaturallySpeaking has been around for some time and has been very positively reviewed, so it isn't like this application recently showed up and no one knew about it. Currently in its ninth release, the software continues to enjoy a high level of popularity, and not only within the sphere of hobbyists; the professional-level versions include packages specifically tailored for the medical and legal professions. It's no toy, and reports of 99% accuracy aren't unusual.

In my case, the current version's system requirements exceeded the capabilities of my obsoletei.e. more than a year oldhardware, but the previous version seemed perfectly acceptable, so that's what I ended up with. So far, version 8.0 appears to be happy in my notebook's 1.3 GHz/.5 gig RAM/XP environment; I haven't seen any ominous blue screens or application lockups, or otherwise noticed any problems. Although, legend has it, the current version of NaturallySpeaking offers a few enhancements and improvements over mine, none of this matters if it won't run properly, and new hardware isn't something I'm willing to contemplate right now. Anyway, I installed the software using the custom configuration option, which saved a bit of disk space. For me, the British and Australian English options are unnecessary, as are a couple other things that would have been included had I chosen the default installation.

Then came the grueling part. In order for the system to understand as many spoken words as possible, it's necessary to read it a predefined story so it can get the hang of the user's pronunciation and inflection, as well as the characteristics of the input deviceusually a microphone or headsetthat will be used. In my case, I decided to use a digital voice recorder instead. This avoids being leashed to the computer with a headset cord, or wearing the equivalent of a small microwave oven on my headI still don't like the idea of wireless headsetsand I can take the recorder with me wherever I go. I probably spent 45 minutes reading to the system, and then it spent about the same amount of time working away on its own, constructing the various databases and files associated with my individual user profile. I note in passing that the current version, according to what I've read, doesn't require this training process.

The acid test, of course, was dictating my own words to see if the system would print what I had spoken on the screen, or merely the skewed approximation I had witnessed from other voice-recognition systems in the past. Out of curiosity, I instructed it to guess at the placement of things like periods and commas, instead of verbally inserting them myself during my dictation. I read it the text of a recent monologue, and here's what showed up on the screen.

Say you have some old notebooks gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Maybe those notebooks contain poetry or short stories from the distant past, and maybe no one is ever read that stuff because well, because it's an old notebooks in a closet somewhere in e-mail conversation the other day reminded me that you don't need a traditional web site to collect those old writings for posterity. All you need is a blog.

I haven't tried the other blogging platforms so your mileage may vary, but I know it's easy to reconfigure blogger for the sort of application. The daily journal style that characterizes the average blog and defines it really is the limitation so much as a convention doesn't have to be used that way. If you turn off or decide the elements that have come to be associated with blog state and timestamps comments track back links, who created the post. You're left with a nice clean space in which to collect the fruits of your labor. Since chronology is no longer a factor. Things like previous posts lists can go

to the use poetry as an example, you can adjust the dates of the poems formally known as posts to change their order on the page. Individual short stories or whatever you happen to be collecting can be similarly arranged photos or drawings would work the same again assuming blogger blogspot is the platform, everything can easily e-mailed to the blog for publication. If you aren't quite ready to show your creative products to the world, you can always make your blog invisible to the masses while you experiment

while disabling the very features that make a blog a blog may seem misguided. There are some fairly attractive blog templates out there. Blog operation in general is straightforward, and it isn't necessary to pay for the privilege. The standard blog configuration is undeniably useful and appropriate for chronological applications. But the few simple adjustments can result in attractive free, easy to use web site for a variety of purposes beyond journaling or aggregating news and opinion. Options. It's nice to have options.

There you have it. Aside from manually breaking the paragraphs, that's exactly the way it came out. Comparing this to the original post, you can see it buggered up a few words and the punctuation needs work, but this was only the first try. I'm encouraged, because with additional training things will only improve.

With any luck, maybe I can soon say goodbye to aching fingers, and hello to mobile dictation. It remains to be seen whether speaking produces the same results as typing; for me, writing is a decidedly visualnot auditoryendeavor. But from what I've seen so far, this ought to at least reduce the need for typing.


Cardboard Consciousness

The sentient boxI guess it was bound to happen. Every day, so many parcels make their way through skies and highways that we no longer pay it any mind. They're just cardboard boxes, mostly, and who cares that the baggage hold is unheated, unpressurized, and altogether inhospitable? Not us. And if our packages languish in the trailers of cross-country diesel rigs for days on end, what is that to us? Nothing, that's what. The truth is we simply don't care about our parcels' feelings, and that's bad. Really, I'm guilty of this flippant disregard myself, and it took UPS to show me the error of my ways. Our packages, according to United Parcel Service, are sentient beings.

The revelation occurred last week, while watching the progress of a holiday package on its journey across the states. It had departed New York on Tuesday via UPS' two-day air service, so there was ample time to reach its destination before Christmas. Periodically, I would log in to United Parcel Service's Web site and enter my package's tracking number, thereby discovering its last known location. Everything was going along splendidly until Wednesday, which happened to be the day my parcel was on its way through Colorado. Wednesday, of course, was the day of the Big Colorado Blizzard, which paralyzed much of the state for two days, and even longer in some places. It seems my package had blundered into the Denver area just as airport operations were grinding to a halt.

Thursday morning brought the full extent of the fiasco into focus. I entered the tracking number, clicked the button, and waited while the UPS system located my parcel. The results were disturbing, to say the least. The parcel had been scanned at o'dark-thirty, but there in bold type was the revelation that not only was my package delayed due to adverse weather conditions, but it was sentient, and possibly suffering.

Your package has experienced an exception.

I sat in stunned disbelief for a moment, trying to make sense of the words. I didn't want to believe it, but the evidence was unassailable. Clearly, my package was having some sort of experience, although the exact nature of it wasn't immediately clear. Something exceptional in any case. I imagined my package alone on the tundra, a single tear frozen in place by the wind-driven snow. After hurling myself against the wall, I decided to call UPS' customer service number.

The automated voice-response system wanted the tracking number, which I provided in the best robotic voice I could muster under the circumstances. The computer simply repeated the information I was already staring at on my own screen, so I said "customer service" in the hope of speaking with a human. The tone of the robot's voice had become noticeably strident when it informed me that customer-service agents had no information beyond what had already been provided, and therefore what did I really want to do? I repeated the aberrant request, after which the line went abruptly silent as I was ejected into the next-available-representative queue.

The human also wanted my tracking number, but it didn't help. She only reaffirmed the package's last known location, and assured me that Colorado's UPS workers were doing all they could to ensure delivery before Christmas came and went. She mentioned the possibility that, in an effort to speed the process, parcels in that area might not be scanned anymore. This led me to ponder the idea that my package was, in fact, speeding toward its intended destination; it just hadn't checked in to inform anyone of its good fortune.

Of course, it might also have meant that UPS operations in that part of Colorado had effectively ceased; it might have meant they threw up their hands in despair over the utter futility of the thing. According to Denver media, the airport became a hostel for the many holiday travelers stranded there for two days, or more. I saw a photo of two men sleeping—or at least attempting to sleep—in an airport baggage cart, and then there were the four-hour boarding lines after they finally got the runways cleared. I saw the snow-depth reports, too.

So here it's Tuesday again, the same day my sentient package left New York a week before. Had I understood the futility of the situation I might have opted for mule train, or other similarly reliable shipping method. But at this point all I can do is wait for UPS' glad e-tidings of successful parcel delivery, hopefully before 2007 comes around. And should those tidings fail to arrive, well . . . perhaps some lucky individual in Norway, Egypt, or Australia has received an unexpected surprise. If that happens to be you, try to treat it as you'd like to be treated yourself. After all, cardboard boxes have feelings, too.


Happy Merry

LightsI know some of you have been celebrating already, and others are nearly there. Those of us who procrastinate still have a couple days to rub elbows with our confederates at the marts and malls before we collapse, at last, in a steaming heap of holiday goo. Or not, if this is the year we finally decide we've had enough, and no one is getting anything but our best wishes, if that. Those of you who already had all the shopping out of the way in August . . . well, you're despicable.

Unfortunately, it's almost a sure bet there will be at least one storm, somewhere, that keeps a few of you from arriving at your intended destinations on time. This is normal, and shouldn't be taken as an indication of bad mojo. We're thinking of you, and hope you get out of that airport lobby before you're forced to consume another one of those plastic cheeseburgers.

All you guys and gals out there spending the weekend in the bunk of your idling diesel rig: we're thinking of you, too. It's a good life, mostly, but I know it gets kind of quiet sometimes. And remember, if you aren't sure if you want to pull the red knob or the yellow knob, it means you're way overdue for a nap. Same thing if you can't decide which way to slide the tandems after you pull away from the scale.

If you're reading this on a computer in a public library and too often sleep in your shoes, we remember you. Every day one more person wakes up and asks why this is happening; maybe one day soon there will be enough to keep it from ever happening again.

If you're wearing body armor and have a rifle between your knees, our thoughts are with you most of all. Just do whatever you have to do to get through this day, and by this time next year things will be different. Nothing lasts forever.

The truly fortunate among you have a little girl or boy—or a matched set, even—through whom you can relive the bright moments of seasons long past. In this way, we never become too cynical to hope, or too old to dream.


Shaking the Section 230 Tree

Who knows what's hiding in thereThe trouble with nutshells is a lack of space; there's just enough room for the bare necessities, but sometimes that isn't enough. When it comes to legal cases, especially, the entire tree may be required before the facts become clear. And sometimes it's interesting to shake the tree just to see what else might fall out. Yesterday's nutshell summary of a recent California appellate court case that found Communications Decency Act protections appropriate in a corporate environment didn't explore the details surrounding the decision. Some of those details were brought out in the comments section yesterday, so there's no need to regurgitate those here.

As it turns out, the court found absolutely no evidence that the company at which the culpability suit was aimed had any reason to suspect the employee was sending threatening messages while at work. This, combined with the utter impracticality of monitoring the communications of every employee in an environment that specifically relies on computers—and their connection to the Internet—to accomplish this communication made the court's decision relatively easy. One paragraph in particular from their opinion discusses the changes to our workplaces that now make all the difference when it comes to defining a company as a service provider. Colorful emphasis is mine.

We are aware of no case that has held that a corporate employer is a provider of interactive computer services under circumstances such as those presented here. But several commentators have opined that an employer that provides its employees with Internet access through the company's internal computer system is among the class of parties potentially immune under the CDA. (See, e.g., Zion, Protecting the E-Marketplace of Ideas by Protecting Employers: Immunity for Employers Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (2002) 54 Fed. Comm. L.J. 493, 496 ["it is evident from the language and legislative history of the [CDA] that Congress intended employers to be covered under § 230," (fn. omitted)]; Garvey, The New Corporate Dilemma: Avoiding Liability in the Age of Internet Technology (1999) 25 U. Dayton L.Rev. 133, 139 ["corporations with direct Internet connections are indeed [Internet service providers] and, therefore, should receive [CDA] immunity from employee computer abuse"(fn. omitted)].) Certainly, it is beyond question todaycertainly more so than 10 years agothat "Internet resources and access are sufficiently important to many corporations and other employers that those employers link their office computer networks to the Internet and provide employees with direct or modem access to the office network (and thus to the Internet)." (American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno (E.D.Pa. 1996) 929 F.Supp. 824, 832-833, affd. sub. nom. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) 521 U.S. 844.) And Agilent clearly meets the definition of that term under section 230(f)(2) (see fn. 20, ante), in that it "provides or enables computer access by multiple users [i.e., Agilent's employees] to a computer server." As noted in Rolfe's declaration, Agilent's proxy servers are the primary means by which thousands of its employees in the United States access the Internet. In light of the term's broad definition under the CDA, we conclude that Agilent was a provider of interactive computer services. (See, e.g., Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at pp. 692-693 [rejecting contention that library was not immune because of its governmental entity status]; Donato v. Moldow (2005) 374 N.J.Super. 475, 486-488; 865 A.2d 711, 718 [Web site's noncommercial status and limited use irrelevant to CDA immunity analysis].)

There are a number of additional reasons for the court's decision in this case, but I'll leave it to the reader to explore the opinion in its entirety online, if that seems interesting. Personally, I think it's worthwhile for the insight it affords, particularly with future cases in mind.


Doubting the Communications Decency Act

Yup. It's section 230 againAnother day, another Section 230 test case. In a nutshell, an employee of Agilent Technologies had already admitted using company computers to send threatening messages over the Net, but the recipients of those messages thought Agilent ought to be at least partially responsible as well. If you've been following similar cases, you can probably guess how it turned out.

Right. In deciding Delfino v. Agilent Technologies, Inc., a California appellate court found no responsibility on Agilent's part; it was merely providing Internet access, and also had no part, directly or indirectly, in those threats. Had Agilent taken an active role in monitoring its employees' e-mail, and Internet usage in general, this case might have taken a very different turn. But the company's hands-off approach shielded it from legal harm; it's difficult to establish culpability if the employer is unaware of the employee's online transgressions.

While this outcome is undoubtedly vexing for the plaintiffs, a company the size of Agilent would require a battalion of full-time monitors to keep an eye on the communications of every employee. But in that situation, any unobserved—or ignored—wrongdoing would expose the company to potential litigation. Similarly unrealistic expectations could be applied to any venue that provides Internet access, whether it's a small coffee shop or a library. Considering the already ubiquitous character of Net-based communication, it's no longer practical—nor desirable, in the context of censorship—to make the medium's provider responsible for the message.


Constrained Writing

Constrain thyselfWhen it comes to effective writing, economy is as important as word choice or syntax. The old never use two words where one will do maxim is more important than ever; most people are pressed for time, and wading through a lot of extraneous words doesn't help. In an attempt to apply this idea to my own writing, I use poetry as a training method for tightening up the prose in my other, less than poetic writing.

The logic of this exercise becomes clear when you think about a poetic style like Haiku. Since you have only seventeen syllables to work with, economy is of the essence. Thus constrained, the repeated challenge of so tightly encapsulating a given concept results in conscious scrutiny of which words are truly necessary. Haiku is an extreme, but the idea is to enforce a limit; it's easy to get carried away when you have an entire page to play with. Compact and powerful, poetry at its best proves the pen's might.

So this is the goal: that every word should tell. Strunk and White may have lived in a different age, but many of their guiding principles remain perfectly valid today. If less is more, simplify.


Audio Surrealism

Oh surreally?I can't be the only one who's noticed this. It doesn't happen all the time, but every so often there's one day during which newscasters, commentators, and others on radio and television broadcasts are unable to speak in any useful way. I don't mean they're just fluffing their lines; I mean they're using words that don't exist. Hear it once and it's an insignificant anomaly. But when one after another is emitting gibberish, on different programs and at various times during the day, the listening experience becomes an exercise in audio surrealism.

Why is this happening? Yesterday, I listened as otherwise articulate speakers on national radio blurted out munged sentences as if some demented trickster had gotten hold of their scripts. I wish I had stopped to write down those gems of miscommunication, but alas, I did not. Words like communicationism, possibly, just to give you some idea of the flavor. If all the speakers were in the same place at the same time, you could chalk it up to things like ultra low-pressure systems, or atmospheric inversions resulting in extraordinarily high pollution levels. But these people aren't in the same place at the same time; they're probably separated by hundreds of miles, if not considerably more. What could possibly account for such a phenomenon?

A black-ops government scheme, maybe. Or aliens. Someone engaged the experimental switching mindbeam apparatus at NORAD, only this time it affected more than just garage-door openers. Or perhaps the little grey guys aboard the orbiting mothership were bored, so they decided to play with the synaptic disrupters they keep on hand in case they get tired of card games, or tickling the abducted Irish Setters' tummies to make their legs jerk. Whole lot of telepathic chuckling going on around the holographic monitors, no doubt, every time one of the radio journalists said "communicationism."

Anyway, you might want to keep your ears peeled for the next big audio surrealism event. It's a little bit creepy in some ways, not unlike listening to a presidential speech. Except in this case, everyone is doing it.


The Multipurpose Blog

OptionsSay you have some old notebooks gathering dust in a closet somewhere. Maybe those notebooks contain poetry or short stories from the distant past, and maybe no one has ever read that stuff because . . . well, because it's in old notebooks in a closet somewhere. An e-mail conversation the other day reminded me that you don't need a traditional Web site to collect those old writings for posterity. All you need is a blog.

I haven't tried the other blogging platforms so your mileage may vary, but I know it's easy to reconfigure Blogger for this sort of application. The daily-journal style that characterizes the average blog—and defines it, really—isn't a limitation so much as a convention; it doesn't have to be used that way. If you turn off, or at least hide the elements that have come to be associated with blogs—date and time stamps, comments, trackback links and who created the post—you're left with a nice, clean space on which to collect the fruits of your labor. Since chronology is no longer a factor, things like previous-posts lists can go, too.

To use poetry as an example, you can adjust the dates of the poems-formerly-known-as-posts to change their order on the page. Individual short stories, or whatever you happen to be collecting can be similarly arranged; photos or drawings would work the same way. Again assuming Blogger/Blogspot as the platform, everything can be easily e-mailed to the blog for publication, and if you aren't quite ready to show your creative products to the world, you can always make your blog invisible to the masses while you experiment.

While disabling the very features that make a blog a blog may seem misguided, there are some fairly attractive blog templates out there, blog operation in general is straightforward, and it isn't necessary to pay for the privilege. The standard blog configuration is undeniably useful and appropriate for chronological applications, but a few simple adjustments can result in an attractive, free, easy to use Web site for a variety of purposes beyond journaling, or aggregating news and opinion. Options. It's nice to have options.


Houston, we have a problem . . .

Distress signalsYou remember Liz, don't you? Distressed septum, and all that. Well, now she's gone and damaged her head, and possibly the contents thereof if an infection happens to spread beyond the sizeable gash she created with the edge of that kitchen-cabinet door. Hey, it happens. You're running late in the morning, trying to get the kiddo off to school, and suddenly you're on your butt on the kitchen floor with a bunch of little birdies flying around your head, struggling to remember your own name. If you're like most people, the vertigo combined with the blood running down your forehead might signal (1) a possible concussion, (2) the possible need for stitches and (3) the need to reconfigure the day's schedule.

Not Liz. She has a math final to take and nothing is going to stop her. Holding a towel to her head, she phones her father to advise him of the circumstances, just in case there's a problem with the navigation systems that might prevent her from arriving at one or more of her intended destinations. Shrugging off his pleas to postpone her morning travel, she hangs up and staggers off in search of hydrogen peroxide. Its bleaching action momentarily forgotten due to the trauma, she pours the bottle's contents on her head, grabs the towel, and heads for her daughter's school. As you might expect, the staff is horrified.

"Oh my . . . Liz! What happened? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. Just bumped my head."

"You don't look fine. You're covered in blood. Why don't you sit down?"

"No. I'm fine. I have to take a math test."

"Liz, you don't look so good. Your eyes are . . ."

"Bumped my head. Gotta go. I have a math final."

With that, Liz is off. The teacher watches, open-mouthed, as Liz makes her way out of the school, bloody towel pressed to her head. She's listing to starboard.

On the highway, motorists are alarmed at the sight of the muttering, bloodied driver. She seems almost unnaturally focused on the road ahead, ignoring the speed limit and anything else that might impede her purpose. She has a math final to take.

When Liz arrives at her destination, the college staff is similarly alarmed. They gasp as the bloodied woman makes her way through the hallway, glazed eyes fixed on the door of the classroom at the end. She's repeating a phrase over and over, as if chanting a mantra. Something about a math final.

Liz bursts into the classroom, startling the professor. He jumps to his feet, understandably distressed at the sight.

"My God! Liz! Did you have an accident?"

"I'm fine. Just bumped my head."

"But you . . . you're covered in blood! Here, let me have a look at that . . . oh man . . . that might need stitches . . ."

Liz pushes him away. "No one is sticking any needles in my head. I just want to take the test. I don't want to come back during break. I'm fine."

Realizing the futility of his protests, the professor returns to his desk, silenced. Liz is already engrossed in the exam, pencil in one hand, towel in the other. The professor shakes his head as a drop of blood obscures an equation on the test sheet.

That evening, Liz is back at her job at the restaurant. She's cleaned herself up in the meantime, but the hair she has brushed over the top of her head in an effort to hide the bleaching effects of the peroxide gives her the look of a lopsided, demented parrot. A few customers make the mistake of mentioning it, and are given a brutal lesson in the aftereffects of head trauma. An employee expresses concern over Liz' drooping eyelid, and the disparity in pupil size. He pays with his job.

It's been a tough day for Liz, and now for others, too. Some of us are more fortunate; some of us were far, far away on that day, and so are able to talk about it now, or write about it. Of course, there's still the possibility of infection, and all the danger that sort of thing presents not only to Liz, but to us all. Better to have dinner elsewhere, maybe.


Take My Picture, Human!

Say Cheese!Back to the old—and also new—professional versus amateur debate, this time in the context of photojournalism, but applicable to so many aspects of this brave new e-world. Yesterday's Editors Weblog article titled Photojournalists to disappear in light of Flickr? discusses the inevitability of unemployed photojournalists due to new media techniques in the hands of the public. The underlying question is whether—or to some folks, when—the ready availability of non-professional visual content will remove the need for professional photographers. It's the now-familiar professional journalist/citizen journalist question applied to photography.

Although it's impossible to argue with the article's time will tell conclusion, I'm still a bit confused by all the anxiety over the idea that an amateur product can simply replace the professional equivalent, regardless of the medium in question. In the context of photography, it's always been possible for Joe Citizen to go out and buy exactly the same equipment used by his professional counterpart. Expensive, but possible nonetheless. But this doesn't mean Joe suddenly began taking Pulitzer-winning photographs; it only means he wasn't limited by the hardware. The playing field was leveled, but that's all.

Technology, whether applied to cameras or Web sites, provides opportunity. A college education provides opportunity, too, but it's also possible to be educated beyond one's intelligence, or creativity, or simply beyond the desire to make effective use of that education. Photography and writing exist under the common metalabel of communication, but effective communication is no more guaranteed by Nikon than it is by Movable Type.

If photojournalists lose their jobs, I think it will be for the same reason that threatens to put most of us out of work, if it hasn't already. It's those wonderful, infernal silicon slaves that work 24/7 and seem quite content to do so. If the slaves happen to be configured as cameras, and are, at some point, literally blanketing the planet, what need is there of human fingers? To press the electronic shutter release, perhaps?

In the meantime, amateur photography—like amateur journalism—is interesting, sometimes, and even compelling. But short of a sudden universal clamoring for snapshots, I don't expect it will take over the pages of National Geographic anytime soon.


Less Is More

How can this BE?Sometimes a concept is so familiar that it no longer gets the attention it deserves. For example, the idea that less is more has been around for a very long time, and everyone knows what it means without having to think about it much. At least we think we do. Mostly, it's taken to express a kind of minimalism; it encourages the old keep it simple maxim. But when you really stop and ponder, the concept is not only illogical, but thoroughly Zenlike in its irrationality.

If less and more are exactly equal—and they are, unless the is word has multiple meanings—then the inverse must also be true. But if more is less, I'm right back where I started. Let's say you have a pile of beans, and your friend has a pile of beans, and when you look at your pile it's clear you have far more beans than your friend has. But do you, really? I mean, if less is more, it's obvious he has the larger pile and no amount of eyeballing will disprove it. On the other hand, more is less. This means that, although your friend has the larger quantity of beans, you'll always have more, and also considerably less. It jams the gears, and confounds the noodle.

I think I'll go back to contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. It's easier.


Your Unknown Audience

They could be hiding anywhereOne of the principles of effective communication is know your audience. It's good counsel, not unlike write what you know, don't try to be funny if you're not, or similarly useful guidance. But when it comes to the average blog, how is this possible? Sure, there are blogs whose authors enjoy a consistently high level of readership, and in those cases there's generally enough feedback to get a pretty good idea of who's out there, and who isn't. Blogs in that category also tend to be aimed at a specific crowd to begin with; in effect, the subject matter determines the audience. Even when readership is low—or unknown for that matter—a blog focused on a particular topic or concern releases its author from that unknown-audience quandary.

Because blogs are such versatile instruments—as versatile as any Web site, since that's what they are, really—their applications are limited only by the imaginations and purposes of those who use them. For those of us who take pleasure in words for their own sake, identifying the audience probably isn't the overriding concern. In such a situation, the blog may be more creative instrument than soapbox; communication remains the goal, but would exist whether or not anyone is there to receive it.

Where simple creativity isn't the imperative, who's in the audience becomes more important. But as a blogger, or someone who otherwise publishes words on the Net, the audience may be forever obscured behind the scrim, and the glare of the klieg lights. There's no help for it. Perhaps the best we can do, if we can't know our audience, is attempt to follow those basic principles of effective communication. Write what you know is always good advice, and I might add the warning of my first and favorite English professor: Never write down! Thanks, Dr. K, wherever you are.


Three Types

TypesI've never been big on labels, on the classification of everything in neat, tidy little boxes. For one, it always struck me as an attempt to assign order mostly for the sake of the assigner, whether or not it actually reflected the true nature of things. Sometimes, the classifications seemed to reflect little more than ambiguity. Especially where the categorization involved people, the labeling process struck me as overly simplistic given the complex, even paradoxical nature of the human condition.

Of course, it's useful to be able to identify the components of one's surroundings. The complete absence of labels would result in some fairly awkward situations, such as being handed a wolverine when what you really wanted was catsup. And then there are the top-level labels—the metacategories, perhaps—that don't identify things so much as define them. These tend to be the result of painstaking research and observation, often over a period of many years—the better part of a lifetime, even. It helps, no doubt, to have the sort of mind that brings together seemingly unrelated pieces of a puzzle; it helps to be extraordinarily intuitive, preferably to the point of genius.

Verena Huber-Dyson is emeritus professor of the Philosophy department at the University of Calgary, and got to know Kurt Gödel in Princeton. The correct interpretation of his work is, it seems, a driving force in her life. In a brief Edge.org article, somewhat disturbingly titled Gödel in a Nutshell, she divides people into three types.

The essence of Gödel's incompleteness theorem is that you cannot have both completeness and consistency. A bold anthropomorphic conclusion is that there are three types of people; those that must have answers to everything; those that panic in the face of inconsistencies; and those that plod along taking the gaps of incompleteness as well as the clashes of inconsistencies in stride if they notice them at all, or else they succumb to the tragedy of the human condition.

As metacategories, I think, these do a wonderful job of defining the fundamental distinctions that so often make all the difference between a life of relative contentment, and one that seems primarily engaged in the process of extinction.


Grinding the Section 230 Axe

Section 230 flowdownIf nothing else, Sunday's op-ed piece by the Yakima Herald-Republic's editor, Sarah Jenkins, proves that not everyone is thrilled with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Her Lack of responsibility makes Web a reckless place article was, I suppose, intended to add fuel to the outrage at Section 230's use as a shield by Internet libel-mongers, and conversely, its utter uselessness in protecting professional journalists.

As I read it, the logic of the article can be summarized thus:

1) John Seigenthaler Sr. is a cool dude. He stands—as he always has—for freedom of speech.

2) Last year he was libeled—in an anonymous Wikipedia entry—by an unknown person using BellSouth as his/her ISP.

3) He was unable to determine the identity of that person because BellSouth refused to provide it.

4) BellSouth was able to hide behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is a double standard. It protects the unregulated, unaccountable world of the Internet, but leaves print and broadcast journalists to twist in the wind.

5) Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is bad.

After doing my own research, I came to the conclusion that items one through three are virtually indisputable, but after that the logic train derails. According to the article, Mr. Seigenthaler expressed understandable frustration—in a column he wrote—over Section 230's protection of online service providers when no such protection is available to the print and broadcast media.

As Seigenthaler explained in the USA Today column, "Federal law protects online corporations -- BellSouth, AOL, MCI, Wikipedia, etc. -- from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that 'no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker.' That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

As it turns out, the guy who posted the defamatory biographical information on Wikipedia did it as a joke; it was a prank designed not so much to defame Mr. Seigenthaler as to tweak a coworker. According to a Wikipedia entry on the subject, the prankster decided to do a little editing on John Seigenthaler's biography.

Brian Chase was an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee. As a prank on a colleague, Chase modified Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography to suggest that Seigenthaler may have had a role in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. While at his workplace on May 26, 2005, Chase added the false texts . . .

The fake entry wasn't noticed until September of the same year, and in October it was removed from public view on the Wikipedia site, although it took several weeks to disappear from other sites that mirrored it. The fiasco resulted in a number of changes to Wikipedia's policies and procedures.

The most frightening aspect of the whole thing, writes Ms. Jenkins, isn't so much that this happened to John Seigenthaler. The really scary thing is that, if this "flawed federal act" isn't repaired, it could happen to you. While it seems obvious enough that this sort of thing could indeed happen to anyone, that direct connection between libel-with-impunity and Section 230 seems considerably less certain.

For one thing, Section 230 doesn't condone defamation, and in no way reduces the libeler's responsibility. The intent of the law is simply to prevent an impossible burden for the conduits through which information flows; the sheer volume of information flowing through any Internet-connected digital pipeline makes the whole idea of monitoring it for content absurd. Even a relatively small, low-volume ISP would be crushed under the administrative weight of such a requirement. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an organization in the business of sifting through virtually all the content on the Net—Google for example—wouldn't be technically able to manage the burden at all, regardless of how many millions of workers they might hire.

In the context of professional journalism, Ms. Jenkins' suggestion of a double standard seems to miss the rather significant difference between the hands-on, low-volume environment of traditional journalism and that of the often impersonal, automated, high-volume Internet. In cases where the protections of Section 230 are put into play, one of the primary issues involves the distinction between deliberate, hands-on editorial control—a newspaper, for example—and the generally robotic operation of the Net. To frame it in the older, more traditional concepts of the world in which many media organizations were incubated, the phone company wasn't responsible for the conversations of its customers, but letters to the editor were always a different matter entirely. It's a similar double standard, in no small part due to Section 230's place within the federal laws that govern large-scale telecommunications enterprises.

Mr. Seigenthaler ran into a legal barrier when he attempted to obtain the identity of his defamer; the ISP would not—and legally could not—simply hand over the name of one of its customers on demand. While it's true that BellSouth couldn't be made liable for defamation posted on Wikipedia's site by one of its customers, and equally true that Section 230 is the legal mechanism responsible for the ISP's lack of responsibility in this case, the logical connection between the ISP's request for a court order and the protections offered by Section 230 is fuzzy at best. Even if Section 230 didn't exist at all, Mr. Seigenthaler's efforts to clear his name wouldn't necessarily have resulted in culpability on BellSouth's part, or for that matter the discovery of his defamer. The likely effect would have been a deep chill on free speech, and in fact this seems to have been one of John Seigenthaler's main concerns at the time, according to the same Wikipedia article on the controversy.

On 9 December, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb hosting. He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web.

As it turned out, Mr. Seigenthaler received a written apology from his character assassin, so although it seems he wasn't contemplating legal action against Mr. Chase anyway, a court order requiring the ISP to identify one of its customers was unnecessary.

The idea of modifying Section 230 to better address current issues in the publishing arena isn't without merit by any means, and the idea has its proponents in the media, and in the legal profession, too. But simply doing away with Section 230 and the protection it provides—whether it's BellSouth or Craigslist—is clearly not a practical solution. Newspapers, and similar organizations that rely on external sources for information, aren't exempt from the benefits of Section 230, either. Their online forums—blogs or otherwise—become a liability when externally-generated content is modified, but that's true of any online forum, newspaper or not. Private-sector bloggers may enjoy a greater level of irresponsibility than their commercial counterparts, but neither can cross the line of libel with impunity. A reckless disregard for the truth doesn't indicate an intrinsic problem with Wikipedia, or BellSouth, or Section 230; it's just part and parcel of the free flow of information. It ain't perfect, but it's still pretty good.


Scary Monsters

Sometimes monsters are cuteYesterday was my lucky day. One of my news and blog alerts sent me a link that did, in fact, turn out to be an excellent example of citizen journalism in action, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Really, to call it citizen journalism and stop there would be nothing short of ironic; it goes to the very heart of the communication ideal. I arrived at Citizen Rob's Blogspot site—only one of many related sites, as it turns out—via a link to a blurb he titled Cue sympathy in 3... 2... 1... about the absurd antics of a local news team, but fortunately I didn't stop there.

Fortunately, I began poking around and discovered not only the reason for the My Beloved Monster & Me blog title, but a most excellent collection of Rob's writings from the distant past to the present. Blogs link to blogs, and Web sites to Web sites; I lost track of all the levels between my original entry point and his more official, serious representations elsewhere on the Net. Man, can this guy write. He's one of those natural writers, I think, to whom written communication is second nature, if not first. I'm guessing his often self-deprecating sense of humor works the same way: it's the natural expression of a unique and priceless personality. This is from one of his bios—others are a bit more serious—that I happened to stumble upon during my travels through his many online points of presence.

Rob is the author of the following: a book-in-progress about his daughter called Schuyler's Monster (to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2008), several half-completed novels, the most recently being a serious gloomy ghost story, World War One sort of a thing; some stuff that he doesn't really want to talk about that got him in a great deal of trouble but nevertheless still cracks him up a little; an early and embarrassing collection of journal-like essays called Robservations (a title that perhaps might have benefited from another five or ten minutes worth of thought); an early journal effort called the Pages of Goo that got him into trouble almost from the first entry; a chronicle of his time in Kalamazoo called, originally enough, Kalamazoo Days; and of course The Book of Rob, unique in his output in that someone actually read it.

Like every other man, woman and child in America, Rob loves bacon.

Mmmmmm . . . bacon! Anyhow, there's so very little I can say that would do this thing justice in any meaningful way, so I'll leave you to explore his world on your own. Not that it's all lighthearted fun and madness; the story behind Schuyler, his beloved monster, his mute little cyborg, his pretty ninja, is both heartbreaking and profoundly encouraging. Together, they have many adventures.



Big nostrilsSometimes it isn't so much what you say as how you say it. Other times it's exactly the other way around, which is why I'm known as The King of Faux Pas. I have a bad habit of blurting out things that might be considered humorous under certain circumstances, but inappropriate and hurtful when the subject is of a serious, personal nature. Ridiculing someone's damaged septum falls under the latter category.

When I walked into the café, the manager was busy with her usual duties. But she found the time, as always, to offer a greeting and a smile, which makes all the difference between just another customer and a welcome guest. This is one of the primary reasons for the restaurant's success; I don't know how much the owner pays her, but it isn't enough. Anyway, I settled in at my usual table and began reading my paper, as I always do. I was lucky this day because all the waitresses had their hands full, so the manager came over to my table herself. This is always fun. I love her lighthearted personality, and she always has something interesting to say. This time, however, Liz wasn't quite as lighthearted as usual, and I noticed a lot of sniffling.

"Sounds like you have a cold," I say.

"I don't know what this is, exactly," she replies, looking a bit glum. "I went to the doctor the other day, and she says I have a perforated septum. It was news to me."

I have to think about that one for a moment. It doesn't sound like a good thing, but I'm no expert when it comes to nose stuff.

I decide to engage. "Like a hole, you mean? How did that happen?"

"The doctor thinks it's been that way for a long time. She tried to tell me it's from drugs."

I laugh. Liz isn't the sort of person who uses drugs, and everyone knows it. But I decide to run with it anyway.

"Well," I say, "that would explain it. All those years of snorting the white stuff have taken their toll."

"Yeah," she says. It's clear this is no laughing matter to her. "I told her over and over, I've never used drugs! She just kept telling me I had. It was crazy."

"Maybe you just don't remember?" I offer, with a look of skeptical concern. I know I'm deadpanning my way into trouble as usual, but I can't stop.

She manages a small laugh. "Right. That's probably it," she replies.

"So . . . how long has it been this way?" I ask, attempting to steer toward rationality.

"Probably since I was little. I had a bad sledding accident and I broke my nose. My dad just stuck his fingers in there and . . . " She makes a skrunking sound.

Disgusting, I think to myself, envisioning the situation. My daughter's nose was black and blue for a week after a sledding accident of her own, I remember. Probably broken, too, but at that age the cartilage is so soft that the event is considerably less than catastrophic. In both cases, the result is nothing but positive: a nice, petite, and wholly attractive nose. At least from the outside.

"So what now?" I ask. "Your nostrils can see each other, and that's that?"

Liz sits down, looking even more glum than before. "No," she says, "eventually it collapses."

I can feel the faux pas coming on, but there's nothing I can do to stop it. I try to choke back the mirth that's welling up from the weird visuals playing in my mind. Her nose just collapses. How bizarre.

"Like foomph? One minute it's there, and the next minute it's just . . . what . . . like a little pancake?" I hate myself, but I have to say it anyway.

"I guess," says Liz, trying to see the humor in it. "They say I'll need reconstructive surgery, but I hate surgery. I don't want surgery!"

Oh crud. Here we go. With superhuman effort I manage to keep the tea from spewing out of my nose and mouth, but now I'm choking from the combination of liquid and unbridled mirth.

"No!" I gurgle, "you can use this! One big nostril! Change your name to Nostrildamus and set up shop as an oracle! You'll be famous!"

The look on her face isn't unfamiliar to me; I've seen it over and over through the years. It's a combination of confusion, pity, and disgust. If the look had a voice, it would be telling me how pathetic I am, and how sick. It would be wondering why I'm walking around, free. If the look had a gun, it would shoot me.

Liz pulls a pen from a pocket. She's ready to take my order now, and I know it may be the last meal I ever eat. In this life anyway.