The Owls Are Not What They Seem

This owl seems bookish, but is he, really?If my not-so-original title isn't ringing any bells, it may be because you never witnessed what can only be described as a genuine cultural aberration. By all indications, normal Americans just weren't quite ready for Laura Palmer's world in that day and age, and yet there it was, and on regular broadcast television no less.

It's still hard to believe that something like this was on American broadcast TV, sharing a network with America's Funniest Home Videos.

An article about the second season of Twin Peaks—now available, it seems, as a set of six DVDs—brought a flood of memories from 1990, which was the year this boldly abnormal television series made its debut. Not that the abnormality of it was surprising. It came, after all, from the mind of David Lynch, creator of twisted epics like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The surprise, as the article's author points out, is that such a program aired on broadcast television at all.

I'm not planning to run out and get my boxed set of that second—and final—season because . . . well, because most everything I want to remember about the series occurred during its first year. I have fond memories of characters like the midget who spoke backward, the elusive, demonic character known only as Bob, and of course the unconventional FBI Special Agent Cooper, who seemed perpetually enthralled with the piney fragrance of Twin Peaks' forest setting. For me, that setting was particularly poignant because I had recently moved to a house in the woods, and I began to wonder if there might be evil dudes like Bob lurking among the trees at night. As it turned out, I never did meet anyone like him, nor anyone like Laura Palmer for that matter. Probably just as well on both counts.


My Haircut

Scissors, baby. I didn't want to mention it yesterday because it was already so late in the day, and I was afraid some of you might not sleep. I know how you worry. The thing is, I had a haircut earlier in the day, but my barber couldn't find her own scissors so she borrowed some from one of her students. She has students because a few years ago she decided to start a school—as a kind of sideline, I suppose—to train people to do what she does, which generally involves cutting off other people's hair. They do supplementary things, too, like filing down customers' fingernails and giving them footbaths, but mostly they concentrate on hair.

Anyway, the only scissors she could find looked like those tiny scissors you see in preschool, or kindergarten. I didn't even notice it until she started mumbling about how my haircut was going to take all day because the scissors were so small, but I didn't want to say anything about it because it's never a good idea to antagonize your barber. I think Van Gogh antagonized his barber, but he didn't want anyone to know the real story. So I just sat there trying to think of something pleasant to say, but then she started cutting at high speed. I guess she was trying to make up for lost time because the little scissors can't cut off much hair at once, the way her regular scissors do. Finally, she said "there," and pulled off the big plastic haircut bib, which is the signal for me to get out of the chair.

One of my barber's students had been standing off to the side observing her technique, but he covered his mouth with his hand and ran into the back of the shop when I stood up. I could hear him making choking, snorting sounds as I paid for my haircut, but my barber was standing there with her hand on her hip, so I just thanked her and left. Since the barber's chair had been rotated away from its usual position where I can see what's happening in the mirror, it wasn't until I got home that I began to understand the full extent of the damage my barber had done with those baby scissors.

Certain breeds of dogs—notably those originating from cold climates—have a thick layer of fur under their outer coats, and this time of year they begin a kind of molting process. Their undercoats come off in pointy tufts, so for a while the dogs resemble unkempt mountain goats, or disheveled Yaks. If you were to combine the appearance of a molting Husky with that of a newly hatched goose, you'd have a pretty good idea of my new look, and you might then also understand why I lapsed into a fugue state shortly thereafter.

I didn't regain my senses until well after dark, and by that time I had apparently wandered into the bad neighborhood south of town. I know this because the policeman told me so. Today the situation doesn't seem quite so bleak, and the nylon stocking I'm using to cover my head lends me, I think, an air of quiet sophistication. My hair will grow back eventually, but in the meantime I'm planning to leverage my new look. I've always wanted to be a jazz singer, but felt I lacked the coolness. Not anymore.


Guts at BYU

I didn't think I'd have the time to put something up today, and I was right. But I just got wind of the BYU-students-who-don't-want-the-vice-president-at-their-commencement-ceremony effort this evening, so better late than never in this case. I wouldn't have expected this sort of thing at Brigham Young University, but on the other hand, it's the perfect place in so many ways.


Lessons from 1960

Even then, paper wasn't fab. The historic online presidential debates slated for the latter portion of this year have already invited comparisons to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, when the relatively new medium of television was used to great advantage by the young JFK. This time the traditional panel of journalists, whose job it is to ask the candidates tough questions, will be augmented by a considerably larger panel of inquisitors comprised of people like you. Hosted by PBS' Charlie Rose and carried on the Web sites of Yahoo, The Huffington Post, and Slate, these online-only debates will make possible an unprecedented level of participation by The People Formerly Known as the Audience.

While the new format isn't likely to entirely replace the old before the next election, the e-writing is on the wall, and it's only a matter of time. To amplify a phrase from 2004 article by Liette Gidlow, Associate Professor of History at Bowling Green State University, adapting to the new medium is essential.

Television remains a crucial part of the electoral process, but its preeminence is being challenged for the first time by a new medium, the Internet. While presidential candidates have used the Internet in one form or another since 1992, in 2004 it was used in new ways and with new power as, for example, when Democratic primary contender Howard Dean discovered its potential for raising large sums of campaign money by soliciting small amounts from many donors. While television has hardly receded from the political scene, the Kennedy experience offers a powerful indicator of the future of politics: In the next generation, as in the last, the candidates who best succeed in adapting to the new medium are likely to be the most successful.

If the 1960 radio audience perceived Nixon as the winner while those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy the victor, it will be interesting to see if there's a similar disparity between new media and old this time around.

While I continue to believe that brain implants are the most elegant solution to our political afflictions, this is a step in the right direction. Real-time control of our politicians is likely to remain as elusive as world peace, but that doesn't mean we should abandon the idea entirely.


Great Beginnings

A bright ideaIf you were out surfing the Web and ran across the following opening line, wouldn't you want to read the article, or blog post, or whatever might come after such a gem?

If Apple, Amazon, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, Facebook, and Satan were forming a mega-portal that would satisfy all my Web needs (and in return I'd have to sell my soul and get a Bluetooth-enabled "slave chip" embedded in my eyeball), I'd be like, "What's the catch?"

I would, and I did. As it turns out, the title of the actual article is In Search of the Perfect Web Page, from (where else?) Slate, written by Reihan Salam as a report on the ultimate mash-up. Such subjects can be a bit dry, so this particular effort deserves a prize for creativity in the face of factual reporting. In my humble opinion, of course.


The Idea of Gun Control

These aren't working The words of the petite grandmother I spoke with last week have come back to me several times over the weekend, and the words are still in my head today. Her point was that, had there been one or two armed citizens at Virginia Tech last Monday, the tragedy could have been minimized, and possibly avoided altogether. Had she been there, she said, her concealed-carry permit and the handgun it allows her to keep on her person would have been put to immediate use. Lives would have been saved.

I'm not sure how many in this country share her view, but I think the number is significant. It's the view of the NRA and similar organizations that represent gun owners, and the freedom they enjoy to keep and bear arms. I don't have a concealed-weapons permit, but for about $75 I could easily obtain one. I'm not a card-carrying member of the NRA, either, but I still have the marksmanship certificate they bestowed on me before I even entered high school. I've owned firearms since I was a teenager, and well before that if you count BB guns. I'm no more the cause of this country's gun-related tragedies than the heat-packing grandmother, or any of the countless law-abiding citizens who own guns legally procured and carefully tended. I consider myself fortunate that I've never been in the position of actually needing a firearm to defend myself or my loved ones, and I'm not a hunter, so my guns see little use. But the idea of not having a gun has never seriously occurred to me, in much the same way a winter hike in sneakers has never crossed my mind. Around here, both are deeply ingrained matters that don't require analysis, or even discussion.

Last week's events changed something, though. Maybe it's just that my daughter is so close to college age now, but I feel I've reached a tipping point of some sort, and the ambivalence that has allowed me to ignore the statistics over the years is no longer tenable. The statistics are damning, and it's obvious our laws—even though they've been recently tightened—are ineffective when it really matters. The idea of giving up my beloved guns is loathsome, but if doing so would prevent even one more school shooting it would be more than worthwhile. Maybe there's a better solution. If so, I sure hope someone comes out with it soon.


Dem Bones

Dammit, Jim. I'm a blogger, not a journalist.If you haven't dosed yourself with sarcasm lately, you might have a look at an article whose title pretty much says it all. Tony Long's comically venomous The Blogosphere, Where a Tawdry Culture Goes to Die was a response to Tim O'Reilly's blogospheric code of conduct proposal, which resulted in the Blogger Registry Versus Free Speech brawl, which isn't really news anymore, so no worries. But there's a touch of irony here that may not be immediately apparent, and in fact may go unnoticed for the next 200 years, give or take.

I'm referring, of course, to the blogosphere's natural utility as a time capsule for future anthropologists. The sheer volume of stuff that has already been pumped into the blogosphere ought to supply ample material for a whole gang of future historians' theses, and it's still early in the game. Give us another 50 years, and Google's perpetually updated cache of blogomatter will be bursting at the seams, or whatever pass for seams in their storage media. Fifty years beyond that, and . . . well, we probably won't be interested in much of anything by then, but you get the idea.

The benefits of this are often overlooked, but they're huge. It will be like discovering an enormous graveyard containing not just bones, but the personal diaries of millions of ordinary citizens. Snapshots—literally so, in some cases—of daily doings and undoings, wise and unwise musings, and personal perceptions of the weighty and irrelevant events that shape and define a culture, all just lying there waiting for someone to come along and dig them up. You can almost taste the anthropological excitement of that future day.

After the mouthwash has taken effect, it might be fun to take an imaginary walk through those cultural catacombs, as seen through the eyes of a civilization yet to come. In a cave illuminated by flickering torchlight, a tribe of hominids huddle around the glowing screen of the last known video device. The Stern speaks, and then The Imus. The creatures beat their naked chests, howling in delight. In a corner of the cave, a young member of the tribe examines a piece of cardboard on which are printed images from an ancient electronic game. Machine guns, exploding cars and bloodied body parts entice him, but the game has long since disappeared from his world. In the darkness outside the cave, a satellite dish points at a silent sky.


Systemic Decisions

Breaking the lock It's been a rough week in more ways than one, but I think it's time to switch off the media machine and attempt to refocus on sanity. The mourning will go on for some time, as it must, but to paraphrase the forensic psychiatrist, I can certainly keep madness from having its own morning show. I'm fortunate not to have lost my child in an insane rampage, but I have some idea of how it might feel. I'm fortunate, also, that my daughter wasn't the object of demeaning remarks delivered by a careless commentator during her college basketball game, but I have some idea of how that might feel, too. Still, any pain or anger I feel in connection with either event is more sympathetic than empathetic, which isn't at all the same thing.

But fortunate doesn't necessarily mean forgetful, and moving on doesn't have to be synonymous with acceptance. These events are symptomatic; they're results, not causes. Although it would be absurd to compare the magnitudes of the results, there are certain commonalities in their origins, and those things can't be forgotten, much less accepted. Cultural shortcomings may be at fault for allowing certain symptoms to persist—and in some cases may actively propagate the larger syndrome—but culture is, after all, a subset of humanity. If systemic failure is to blame, it may be worthwhile to examine the larger system that spawns every culture, past, present, and future.

I think every generation—once it reaches a certain collective age—considers its present a time of madness. I have a different idea. I don't believe humanity has been accumulating insanity so much as allowing the insane minority a disproportionate share of the decisionmaking process. Ambivalence is silent, but the voice can be restored. On the other hand, those who believe the basket has already arrived at the gates of hell aren't likely to devote any effort whatsoever to a cause they consider lost. In that case, the silence is forever.

In the end, we all play a crucial role in determining the shape of society, and what symptoms our particular culture might present. Every personal decision affects the whole, and moves humanity one click forward, or back, while the absence of any decision allows others to determine how things will be. The solitary individual never dictates to humanity; it's just the cumulative indecision of its members that allows it to seem so.



The most fearsome label Not again. Five fatal shooting incidents in our schools last year, and now, only halfway through April, the worst of them all. As always, labels are attached to the tragedy, because labels organize things. Labels are rational and orderly; they line things up so they can be categorized, and thus understood. It's only been a couple days now, but already on Monday the labels were being assigned, some obvious, some not, and some just meaningless. Student. Loner. Korean. English major. Troubled.

Today the labels are more detailed. Writer of bizarre, troubling plays about murder and molestation. Stalker. Owner of accurate, expensive guns. Suicidal. Bomb threats. Green card. Mentally ill. And even really, really mean.

It isn't like no one noticed anything odd, or noticed but did nothing. Everyone noticed. He never spoke, and his signature was literally nothing more than a question mark. More than one of his professors actively attempted to do something; there were extreme warning signs, and alarms were sounded. Sadly, he hadn't yet acted, and little could be done.

So many labels, so many questions, and so much pain. To me, the most fearsome label of all is the one with the question mark on it, because that's the same label my daughter wears every day at her school. It's the label worn by every student—regardless of age, it seems—in every school in this country. Will my daughter survive her education? It's a question mark.


Free Speech Issues That Aren't: The Suppressed Speech of Don Imus

Sometimes a dangerous toolIf someone pays you to speakor writedoesn't that make it paid speech? If the concept of free speech even enters the equation, isn't it in the context of the employer?

The question has, of course, everything to do with whether or not Don Imus' comments qualify as protected speech. Like the Blogospheric Badge of Courage controversy, this also strikes me as more of a configuration issue than one of free speech.

When he made the comments, Mr. Imus was operating at the bottom of a three-tier system: he was the employee of a company funded by advertising for products sold to the general public. When the program's advertisers withdrew their financial support, it was an expression of the perceived will of their customersthat's you and mewho aren't willing to pay for Product X if the money is going to wind up paying for ads that pay the company Imus works for, because that's how they pay him, too. In effect, the consumer refuses to pay Don Imus $10 million a year to make racist, sexist comments about college kids. Since Mr. Imus was configured, at the time, as a paid spokesman for two separate entitiesthe companies he worked for directly, and the companies that had paid for advertisinghis words became their responsibility. It wasn't free speech; it was paid speech.

Still, it would be fascinating to test the hypothesis. Now that he's a free agent, Mr. Imus might consider walking the streets of Washington D.C. with a bullhorn, repeating the words he uttered on his show. Would it be protected speech? If not, what lessons might be learned from the experience?


Free Speech Issues That Aren't: Free Speech and the Blogospheric Badge of Courage

The usual violence in the blogosphereBeing occupied and preoccupied with my backward-running microseries last week, I wasn't able to throw my two cents into the bloodied ring of the Blogger Registry Versus Free Speech brawl, nor the similarly gory Suppressed Free Speech of Don Imus fiasco. But lest you feel the sudden urge to yawn, I assure you I have no intention of weighing in on one side or the other. This is because neither really seems to have much to do with free speech. They're more configuration issues than free-speech issues.

Apparently, someone woke up one day and noticed a new configuration of the old Web page—or site, for a collection of pages—that had become extremely popular at some point during the night. The new arrangement was known as a blog, and although it was constructed of the familiar HTML material, the bits and pieces had been configured to act as a diary of sorts. It seemed specifically designed for frequent entries, perhaps on a daily basis, or weekly, or monthly, or whatever time and inclination might dictate. Like the familiar Web site, this new configuration also seemed to be intended to inhabit the Internet, but unlike the traditional site, the blog seemed to have interaction on its mind. In addition to writing space for the primary author, there was a place for comments.

Those who had been using the Net as an open discussion forum for years—via Usenet, for example—immediately recognized the newcomer as simply an updated implementation of some not-so-new concepts. Bulletin board meets Internet and begets Usenet; Usenet meets Web and begets interactive Web site. And the interactive Web site morphs—through a few minor tweaks—into a new, easy to use configuration suitable for bringing the infamous trolls and flame wars of Usenet onto the computer screens of the general population, no ├╝bergeek credentials required.

After a while, this new configuration also attracted the attention of mainstream media concerns, who noticed that millions of ordinary citizens were suddenly in possession of what amounted to personal printing presses with global distribution channels built in. This was vexing, because the citizens also seemed to like this newfound freedom of expression, and were even beginning to use it for things like news distribution. And so those who make decisions concerning mainstream media concerns issued fiats—which their underlings misunderstood—designed to address and correct the problem. Although the edicts were widely interpreted as a call for the immediate adoption of the blog model by mainstream media concerns in general, the actual intent was more along the lines of let's see what we can do to bring traditional media into sync with the present, instead of using up all that paper and ink and stuff. But by the time those who had issued the fiats returned from their vacations, it was too late.

Blogs had already been pressed into service in virtually every corner of the mainstream media, and were already being overrun by hordes of interlopers spouting vulgar ideas in even more vulgar language. It was like Usenet all over again, only worse, because mainstream media concerns had never deliberately participated in that kind of free-for-all. And wisely so, because it would have been madness. And yet, because of a simple misunderstanding, nearly everyone involved in the business—from management to interns—had been put in the decidedly awkward position of defending an indefensible idea. In a classic example of misapplication, the particular configuration known as a blog was expected to take the place of traditional one-way communication platforms such as newspapers, and when the heretofore civilized letters-to-the-editor section sank into chaos, some said it was time for accountability.

Some thought that the millions of ordinary citizens in possession of what amounted to personal printing presses with global distribution channels ought to be registered or otherwise accounted for, because that way they wouldn't be so likely to cause trouble. Without the cloak of anonymity, they'd think twice before leaving unacceptable comments on those mainstream-media blogs. In fact, they might stop trying to pass themselves off as journalists altogether; they might stay in their abhorrent blogosphere where they couldn't hurt anyone. When they heard this, the inhabitants of the blogosphere were upset. Their free-speech rights were being called into question; freedom of the press—or e-press in this case—was at stake, and anyone who said otherwise was itching for a fight. And so the fighting began.

This brings up a few questions.

1) Who decided to reconfigure traditional news sources using the interactive blog model in the first place? Newspapers—or magazines, or whatever—don't work in the Usenet configuration for obvious reasons, and the blog is just an updated version of that configuration. Disabling the comments feature inherent in the typical blog model would solve some problems, but then it wouldn't really be a blog anymore. Would this be a bad thing?

2) The existence of millions of personal printing presses with global distribution channels is historically unprecedented, but large-scale, mainstream media concerns are not. If those large media concerns decided to appropriate the personal printing press configuration—thereby inviting the traditional Usenet flame war—how would some kind of blogger-registry scheme undo that decision?

3) For better or worse, blogs are rapidly becoming the executive expression of the masses, and free expression deserves protection under the law. But when large-scale media adopts the same tool for use in the private mediasphere and then begins to suggest limitations on free expression in the public blogosphere, what problem is it, exactly, that would be solved?

4) If a journalist decides to post stories on a public Usenet forum and is subsequently overwhelmed by the volume and harshness of comments, is this symptomatic of the general decline of civilization, or is the civilization just more obvious now that we have personal printing presses through which to express our tortured lives?



A Fool's Errand - Part 1

Arriving with a convoluted strategy in mindJimmy's orders were clear, even if the logic behind them was not. As he waited at the airport's baggage carousel he knew it was a fool's errand, but the order had come from his wife and so was not negotiable. That it seemed misguided—or even hopeless—wasn't his primary concern. He was Katrina's lieutenant, and he knew from past experience the price of disobeying her orders. Jimmy felt his sphincter contract as the memories flooded his mind, but then his luggage came into view. Plucking his suitcase from the revolving mix, he set his jaw and turned toward the exit, determined to make the mission a success. How exactly this would be accomplished wasn't clear, but as always, the thought process behind the plan belonged to someone else. His job was not to question or otherwise dissect the convoluted strategy his wife had devised; his job was simply to execute the task, then return to Baltimore as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, he wouldn't miss the humiliation. The maid's outfit he was required to wear when he vacuumed, the barked orders in public, and Katrina's refusal to allow him access to his own bank account at the supermarket—even though he was expected to pay for the groceries—were only a few of the harsh realities he wouldn't have to face for a while. It would be a vacation of sorts, or at least it seemed so from the temporarily optimistic viewpoint that so often characterizes impossible missions before they're actually under way. As Jimmy slipped into the back seat of the cab, a smile played briefly on his face as he considered a new possibility, but then the smile was gone. Too risky, he thought, as the taxi pulled away from the curb. Too much to lose. Too much to lose.

He awoke with a start. The cab driver was shouting at him, wanting to know if Jimmy was planning to ride along for the rest of the day. It would be cheaper, he suggested, to get a hotel room. Rubbing an eye with the back of his hand, Jimmy thanked the driver and told him to keep the change. The taxi's tires sprayed gravel as the driver held the accelerator to the floor, dismissing Jimmy's tip with the middle finger of his free hand. Jimmy stood for a moment, blinking in the afternoon sun. His stepdaughter appeared in the open doorway of her house and asked if he'd had a good flight. Jimmy shrugged. Then, without a word, he followed Angelique into the house and closed the door.


A Fool's Errand - Part 2

Better than realJimmy would be staying with his stepdaughter and her new husband for the duration of his visit, which had its good points, but also presented a few challenges. The house he and his family had abandoned was within walking distance; this was one of the good points, considering he had been denied the use of Angelique's car. Years of experience had taught her the dangers of lending vehicles to Jimmy; he was one of those people who somehow damage everything they touch. It wasn't purposeful so much as the predictable result of carelessness, and he was clumsy besides. Jimmy had never been able to admit these traits to himself, and so would become hostile at the insinuation. This by itself resulted in tension, but when all the other factors were thrown into the mix—wounds dating back to his stepdaughter's early childhood in some cases—the result was an oppressive atmosphere of unresolved conflict, pain, and alienation.

As you might expect, communication was nonexistent, at least in any meaningful sense. Words were exchanged, but they were only symbolic approximations; they weren't intended to impart knowledge, or even information. In fact, Jimmy's words—when he spoke at all—were more likely to obscure facts and circumstances than illuminate them. Over the years, he had learned to disavow any knowledge of anything, because doing otherwise almost always resulted in full-out warfare with his wife, and he was never the winner in that war. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, he had once referred to Katrina as "a jackbooted thug," but he had been alone in the bathroom at the time, and so had not been held accountable for the treacherous blasphemy. Still, the idea that she might somehow discover the treason, even after so many years, held Jimmy in a paralyzing grip. The only way he could escape the terrible possibility was to pick up the remote and drop into the rabbit hole of cable TV.

It was for all these reasons that Jimmy spent the entire time at his stepdaughter's house gazing at the television, his face frozen in a mask of childlike awe and wonder. Unwilling—and probably unable—to communicate on any meaningful level, his response to virtually any question was generally limited to the same three words, uttered during brief pauses in the television characters' scripts.

Angelique: "So, how long are you going to be in town?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Are you going to work on the house? Fix the windows?"

Jimmy: "What?"

Angelique: "Mom said you were here to work on the house so it could be sold."

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "She said you're paying $1,800 a month for rent. You must need the money."

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "And a houseful of new furniture?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Whatever. You're planning to see your new granddaughter, right?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Heard any news about your brother? Is he still a crack whore?"

Jimmy: "Pray hard."

Angelique: "What?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "How's the new dog? Getting big?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Is that pilot still living with you guys? She has a kid, right?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Mom said you lost your job. What happened?"

Jimmy: "I don't know."

Angelique: "Oh for . . . what does that mean?"

Jimmy: "What?"

Angelique: "I give up."

Jimmy: "What?"

Every so often, Jimmy managed to tear himself away from the TV just long enough to go over to the old house and think about what needed to be done in order to sell it. Unfortunately, thinking was as far as he ever got with the job, and an hour or two of that was more than enough to drive him out again. Then it was back to his stepdaughter's place, back to the chair in front of the TV, and back to the altered state of consciousness that had become, for him, everyday reality.


A Fool's Errand - Part 3

Home improvementIn theory, the house they abandoned several months earlier ought to have sold already, and the proceeds from that sale should have been paying the exorbitant rent they owed every month for the large and luxurious place his wife had selected shortly after their arrival in Baltimore. Not that he had been consulted in the matter. Jimmy was just going along—getting along, as his mother put it—in much the same way he had for the past 25 years of their incomprehensible marriage. The recent loss of his job hadn't helped, of course. It had worsened an already volatile situation, tipping the balance of power even further in favor of Katrina's dictatorial authority. So when he was told to get on the next flight and do anything necessary to prop up their precarious financial situation, he was just following orders.

The trouble was, the house he and his family had occupied for so many years didn't belong to him. It belonged to his father-in-law, who wasn't exactly thrilled at the unexpected move. It meant he was stuck not only with the mortgage, but with the complete renovation of a large and very old house, followed by the responsibility for its sale in an increasingly soft market. It didn't help that his daughter had forged her mother's signature on a cell-phone contract just before she left, resulting in a $1,000 surprise in his mailbox a week later. She had done a similar thing to her mother-in-law years before. But it wasn't Ralph's nature—nor the teaching of the church—to keep a record of wrongs, and so he and his ailing wife had moved into the vacant house and commenced the renovation process, leaving the home they had recently purchased in another state in the care of neighbors.


A Fool's Errand - Part 4

AdiosFor reasons understood only by parents of wayward sons and daughters, Ralph had allowed Katrina to convince him—with the help of a realtor who was in cahoots with his daughter—that once the house had been brought up to minimum standards it would easily sell for half a million dollars. This was a formidable sum, especially in light of the price he had originally paid for the place; it represented an 825% appreciation, in which Jimmy and Katrina hoped to participate.

But as days became weeks and weeks turned to months, the project became an impossible drain on Ralph's wallet, and on his health. He and his wife had already retired, mostly, and the cumulative stresses of the undertaking began to take their toll. In an attempt to maintain the condition of the main level—they had already installed new appliances, among other things—they were living on the second floor, which had no kitchen. Cooking on a hotplate can be done, but it isn't a positive experience, and when colder weather began to nudge monthly utility bills toward the $800 mark, they decided to quit before they were down to their last dime. So they closed the place up, hoping to return when warmer weather—and a better real estate market—might result in a more positive outlook.


A Fool's Errand - Part 5

Home again home again marketing doneIn the end, it didn't matter how many months had gone by since their abrupt departure. It might have been three years or three days, because the damage had been spread over a lifetime, and so couldn't be undone simply by wishing it. As Jimmy waited in the security line, the impulse to turn around and walk out of the airport alternated with the equally commanding desire to return to the new life—or at least the appearance of a new life—that lay on the other side of the boarding gate. Soon it would be too late to turn back. Once the security personnel began the check-in process, there would be nothing to do but continue through the line until, eventually, the dull thud of the plane's closing door would remove any further choice of destinations. At the other end of the flight would be the house he could not afford—the focus of several recent and ugly arguments with his wife, and the primary reason for the fool's errand from which he was returning this very day.

He thought about the pilot who had been staying with them since their arrival in Baltimore. Fighter pilots don't just disappear from one day to the next without saying something, even if they are ex-pilots. And yet, she had. Gone, just like that, without so much as a goodbye. Jimmy looked over his shoulder at the line growing behind him. Not too late to pick up your bags and walk out, he thought. But still he didn't move.


An Easter Story

You don't know JackJack had been delivering eggs for 16 years, and maybe that was a contributing factor. Doing the same thing day in and day out, over and over, with no vacations would be enough to crack anyone. In Jack's case the tipping point came on the night before Easter, which is how he lost his job and wound up on the wrong side of the penitentiary wall.

For most of the rabbits employed by Huevos Inc., distributing colorful eggs to all the good boys and girls on Easter morning was a joyful event. It was well worth the double shift, and braving the cold weather that always seemed to come at that time of year. But for Jack, it had long ceased to be a source of satisfaction, much less joy. Jack was angry. He was angry at the cheerful colored eggs, and angry at the squeals of joy from the children on Easter morning as they discovered the bright treasures. So, on one particularly cold and dreary April night, Jack decided to do something about it.

Everyone agreed it had to be an inside job, because it takes time to make tiny holes in both ends of several million eggs so the insides can be blown out. It takes time to fill every egg with petroleum jelly and seal the shells so no one notices the tampering. And it would have taken more than one or two tankers to haul that quantity of yolks and whites to the obscure Pacific island where the reeking mess was discovered several weeks later. But no one else ever came forward, and those who were questioned said they didn't know Jack. No one admitted any knowledge of the despicable deed, and so Jack alone was put on trial, and convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to three consecutive life terms in a federal facility.

Almost no one remembers the event anymore. Most of those who were children at the time are too old, now, to be sure if the eggs they found on that sunny Easter morning so many years ago were anything but wholesome, and delicious. A few say they ate one of Jack's eggs, but those are generally the same people who claim to be a king, or a princess. As for Jack, it was officially reported that he died in prison, remorseless to the end, although some continue to believe he was exchanged for a political prisoner during the first year of his incarceration. Some say he's planning to ruin Easter again this year.


The Report Formerly Known as the State of the Blogosphere

Ever upwardTechnorati's quarterly report has hit the e-streets, and now focuses not only on the rise of the blogosphere per se, but on the tags—or labels, if you prefer—that have become pervasive as a means of sorting content, and identifying who likes what.

Through the social constructs of tags, we help people find unique voices and points of view. We also help social media publishers to find the people formerly known as their audience. And they all converge, as a result, on Technorati.

According to Mr. Sifry's statistics, a new blog is born every 1.4 seconds, there are 17 new posts every second, and it took 320 days for the blogosphere to grow from 35 to 75 million blogs. Japanese is in first place as the language used to write the blogs, with English in second.

Ain't it grand?


Blog Dreaming

Nightmares in the blogosphereLast night I dreamed about my blog. Most of the topics in the column on the right had devolved into flashing red warnings, the kind you see when some catastrophic event has occurred deep within your computer's operating system. The text of every post had turned a pale blue; it was all one big link, but the link led back to itself. As I sat staring at my ruined blog, an unseen woman with a harsh voice—somewhere behind me in the room—made disparaging remarks. Only a lunatic, she said, would pump so many words into the blogosphere without a good reason.

When I awoke, I was afraid she was right.


It Is To Laugh

Mothers can be the source of many things. Food and nurturing, for example, and arguably the very source of life itself. But you can't always trust your mother.

This afternoon Ted Turner came up in conversation, and I wondered aloud about the name of the woman to whom he had been married. A well-known woman, to say the least, but I couldn't retrieve her name. Mom couldn't think of her name, either, but had recently seen her on a talk show. This seemed reasonable, but she went on to say that the woman in question had been the co-host of that show. I don't watch TV so I wasn't able to mount a credible defense, but confidence was beginning to wane. It just didn't seem likely the woman I was thinking of would have co-hosted a TV show.

Later, just as someone else was correctly identifying the mystery woman as Jane Fonda, the elusive name abruptly materialized in my mother's memory banks. Snapping her fingers, she made the pronouncement: Kathie Lee Gifford!

I'm just thankful my mouth was empty at the time.


A Novel Section 230 Interpretation

Your friend and mine, section 230. Last week's opinion by the Ninth Circuit court regarding the Perfect 10, Inc. v. CCBill LLC case affirmed some of the findings of the district court that had previously heard the case, reversed others, and ultimately sent the case back for further determination of a few key issues. Although the final outcome has yet to be decided, the opinion has already resulted in a fair amount of discussion among those who have a particular interest in our old friend, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The case revolves around intellectual property, but since at least some of the property in question was distributed via the Internet, section 230 came into play—in a rather novel way, actually.

The immunity created by § 230(c)(1) is limited by § 230(e)(2), which requires the court to "construe Section230(c)(1) in a manner that would neither 'limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.' " Gucci Am., Inc. v. Hall & Assocs., 135 F. Supp. 2d 409, 413 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (quoting § 230(e)(2)). As a result, the CDA does not clothe service providers in immunity from "law[s] pertaining to intellectual property."

The CDA does not contain an express definition of "intellectual property," and there are many types of claims in both state and federal law which may—or may not—be characterized as "intellectual property" claims. While the scope of federal intellectual property law is relatively well-established, state laws protecting "intellectual property," however defined, are by no means uniform. Such laws may bear various names, provide for varying causes of action and remedies, and have varying purposes and policy goals. Because material on a website may be viewed across the Internet, and thus in more than one state at a time, permitting the reach of any particular state's definition of intellectual property to dictate the contours of this federal immunity would be contrary to Congress's expressed goal of insulating the development of the Internet from the various state-law regimes.

This is where things get interesting—and where some observers raise an eyebrow—because the language suggests that states' intellectual-property laws are, in the end, trumped by federal law.

In the absence of a definition from Congress, we construe the term "intellectual property" to mean "federal intellectual property."Accordingly, CCBill and CWIE are eligible for CDA immunity for all of the state claims raised by Perfect 10.

Whether the shock wave generated by this interpretation ultimately results in a reexamination of the CDA by Congress—or perhaps more directly affects state law—remains to be seen, but the recurring issues surrounding the Internet's notorious disregard for boundaries aren't going to go away. The solution, at least for now, appears to be the more uniform application of federal law—section 230 in this case—in order to avoid legal chaos, and because it just seems reasonable to extend the broadest possible umbrella where the Internet is concerned.

One of the remaining questions, which the district court will examine, is whether or not two entities involved in the case actually operate a particular Web site . . .

Because Perfect 10 has raised a triable issue whether CCBill and CWIE directly infringed Perfect 10 copyrights by operating, and because the district court did not address this issue in its order granting summary judgment in favor of Perfect 10, we remand this issue for a determination by the district court.

. . . because if it turns out they do, the protection offered by section 230—and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well—will disappear into thin air.

If CCBill and CWIE operate, no immunity for infringement on that site is available under either the DMCA or the CDA.