February 15, 2013

Tesla Test Drive Controversy Data - Speed HIGH by 10% ?

[Summary - Think about the data. The speed looks HIGH by around 10%.]

I'm going to toss this post up, with some trepidation - I don't know if it's better if it remains in the low grass of my many handfuls of readers, or if I'd rue being an ant among elephants. Anyway, one-sentence intro: I've been following the issue of the _New York Times_ reporter who test-drove a Tesla electric car, had problems with driving range, and has been attacked by the company. I'm not going to attempt to summarize it all, it's well-covered. A key point was that the Tesla car's internal tracking data conflicted with the written account of the reporter.

Company: "Cruise control was never set to 54 m.p.h. as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 m.p.h. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 m.p.h. to 81 m.p.h. for a majority of the trip ..."

Reporter: I do recall setting the cruise control to about 54 m.p.h., as I wrote. The log shows the car traveling about 60 m.p.h. for a nearly 100-mile stretch on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. ...

Here's where I start to think, we have an objective way to attempt to determine truth. I'm wary of teach-the-controversy and middling-truth punditry (e.g. Republicans say the Earth is flat, Democrats say it's round, we need bipartisanship - how about a compromise middle ground from both "extremes", that it's flat but has rounded corners?). Putting aside possible bad memory about the number, this discrepancy should be a critical point.

In the company's article, under "Vehicle Logs for Media Drive by John Broder on January 23 and 24", let's look closely at the first graph, "Speed" vs "Distance" There's a long flat stretch around "200 mi", of almost exactly "60 mph". Yup, that's cruise control. The reporter says it was "54 mph". Later on, around "450 mi", there's another flatish stretch of about "52 mph", reporter says "about 45 mph". Hmm ...

60 54
52 45

Just suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the "Speed" value shown on the graph should be reduced by 10% to derive the actual value. Then we have:

60 -> 54 (vs 54)
52 -> 46.8 (vs 45)

That starts to look very close. Plus,there's a long section of supposed "70mph"-ish readings at around "100 mi" that would look much better as "63mph"-ish results, given that the speed limit was 65 (granted, this isn't the strongest argument, but I'll assume the reporter would think risking a speeding ticket was a bad idea on a test drive).

I'm cautious about whether anything is due to different tires. That's tempting, but it may be a red herring. There was a comment in the reporter's rebuttal post that "The diameter for the 19" all season tire is 27.7 inches, with 755 revolutions per mile. The diameter of the 21" summer tire is 27.8 inches with 750 revolutions per mile. The difference of 19" and 21" are the diameters of the wheels. So as you based your calculation on wheel diameters and not tire diameters you won't get to the actual difference in speedometer readings. My calculation has a difference of .13%.".

Maybe someone just fumble-figured a conversion number for translating the tracking data into a figure of speed in terms of miles per hour. That is, where hypothetically they should have entered "755" (revolutions per mile), instead they might've entered something like "855". Such things have been known to happen.

In a thoughtful world, there'd be a cry of "THAT DATA LOOKS HIGH!". I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determined what sort of world we live in from the relative prominence of what is being cried.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:42 PM
November 15, 2009

Belle de Jour ("Brooke Magnanti") - I still say HOAX

"Belle de Jour" an alleged anonymous prostitute blogger, is now allegedly outed as Brooke Magnanti, a scientist. I'd believe she's the writer, but I don't buy the story.

I'm going out on a limb here. All the initial punditry I see is of the type What Does This All Mean? I wish there was more Why Should We Believe This?


"I couldn't find a professional job in my chosen field because I didn't have my PhD yet. I didn't have a lot of spare time on my hands because I was still making corrections and preparing for the viva and I got through my savings a lot faster than I thought I would."

Unable to pay her rent, Magnanti's mind turned to other things. She told the Sunday Times she wanted to start doing something straight away, "that doesn't require a great deal of training or investment to get started, that's cash in hand and that leaves me spare time to do my work in". Her solution was prostitution.


To be specific - I have no trouble imagining someone turning to high-class prostitution to make ends meet. I have enormous trouble swallowing the idea that someone who finds herself doing it out of financial need immediately starts up a blog presenting it as a funny and amusing adventure. No way.

You can even see her covering what would be obvious the holes in the story:

"Some sex workers have terrible experiences. I didn't. I was unbelievably fortunate in every respect. The people at the agency looked after us appropriately and instructed us appropriately and weren't going to put us in harm's way if they could possibly avoid it."

It's not about "harm's way". What has thoroughly convinced me of the fakery is that just about every single blog I have ever seen which was written by someone in a service industry, whether a waiter, bouncer, comic-book store clerk, whatever - has had a strong component of hating moronic customers. In retrospect, "Belle de Jour" reeks of someone making it up.

And I'm not the only or the first person to think along those lines. See this old article "Belle doesn't ring true"

One of the things that makes me most suspicious about Belle de Jour is that I've never met a working girl who has kept a diary. The girls I knew were not proud of it. Most were unmarried young mums struggling through life, and they certainly didn't advertise what they did - it was their terrible secret. I think the only person who would write a diary like this about prostitution is somebody who intended to have it published, and in all likelihood somebody who had this published wouldn't be on the game. ...

A while back someone asked me why I was so critical of "Belle de Jour". I tried to convey how it was the worst sort of faked sincerity. Blogging was sold as authenticity, but fabrication was the reality (a different sort of high-class prostitution). C'mon folks, let's try to exercise a little critical thought, instead of being manipulated all over again.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:31 AM | Comments (11)
June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson's Nose post revisited

A long time ago, I wrote about Michael Jackson's nose. This was an attempted debunking of extensive echoes that his nose had been butchered from surgery. The nonsense arose from what was just a bad photographic angle of some pieces of tape on his face.

For quite a while, that post was the most popular item on my entire site, since it ended up being highly ranked for a Google search on the words [Michael Jackson Nose].

There's a lesson there.

Now, obviously, people are going to say "What did you expect? Of course writing about celebrities draws in the hits. But did you want to be a gossip-blogger? It's not useful traffic anyway".

Which is all true. But I think it misses the point about incentives, and what's rewarded in blogging. Anyway, I've said it before. But I'll confess curiosity at how this post will fare in terms of traffic.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
June 17, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on debunking "USB-powered microwave"

"Far too often, new media serves up popularity without accuracy"

"Check your serving of online news for factual accuracy before you give it a taste"

I sadly suspect I'm going to get grief for that title, it was done by an editor. It'll likely set off people's bloggers-versus-journalists reflex. In my column, I specifically wrote "This isn't about bloggers v journalists". But ironically, knee-jerking about that is what's going to bring in the page-views.

What I was trying to illuminate in this column was how the idea of "self-correcting bogosphere" was utter bunk. And, critically, the hucksters who peddle it should have no credibility by now. I'm hardly the first to say that, but there's some value here in a simple case study (that's also not a political firestorm).

It doesn't mean professional journalists were always right (I can see the Attack Of The Strawmen coming on). We knew that already. It means these issues are serious matters that shouldn't be waved away with technomarketingbabble.

On the bright side, I finally got to use a joke I've been wanting to tell for a while.

Blog bonus, here's part of my email to the inventor, talking about the energy issues. He indicates he couldn't discuss the technology in detail, due to various

I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation for the energy involved:

1 calorie = raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius
1 calorie = 4.184 joules
Snap Pots = 200g of water, as an approximation

200g water * raise 50 C = 10000 calories = 10^4 calories = 4.184 x 10^4 joules
1 watt-hour = 3.6 x 10^3 joules
So 4.184 x 10^4 joules =~ 11.6 watt-hours

Laptop batteries are around 60 watt-hours or so. So while this doesn't break the laws of physics, discharging 11.6 watt-hours from a laptop-type battery in 60 seconds seems problematic. I'd *joke* the microwave part may not work, rather it's in fact the heat from shorting the battery, making this a battery-powered electric oven.

Assuming the battery is in the base, there does seem to be an energy capacity problem.

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein | guardian.co.uk.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:32 PM | Comments (1)
June 09, 2009

DEBUNKING USB-powered microwave story

[Original reporting! Not an echo!]

A UK tabloid story has set off a round of uncritical echoing of a ludicrous claim:

It is the world's smallest, portable microwave and can be powered via a link to the USB port on a laptop computer.

The turquoise device - called the Beanzawave - has been created in partnership with Heinz to allow workers tied to their desks to create a warm snack, or hot drink, to see them through the day.

I realize I am expecting too much for anyone in the echoing chain to say "But how is that possible?", as popularity wins over accuracy. But it's still a sad result.

For non-technical people, here's a short description of the problem:

Water takes a relatively large amount of energy to heat up (Microwave ovens typically use many hundred of Watts of power, 1100 Watts is common). USB ports supply very little energy (2.5 Watts of power). Without needing to do any complicated calculations, the scales just don't match.

So I mailed the company and asked them about this:

Dear Sirs

I am a blogger who has read the articles about the "Beanzawave", where supposedly a USB port powered device can heat a small food portion.

"Apart from its size, the key breakthrough is the use of a combination of mobile phone radio frequencies to create the heat to cook both on the outside and within in under a minute."

I don't understand what is meant by this. Even at 100% transfer efficiency, the total energy drawable in a minute from a USB port (which can supply around 2.5 Watts) is not enough to significantly heat even a small food portion.

Assuming that the news reports garbled whatever you were trying to say, would you be kind enough to clarify the idea?

[I received a prompt response]

The USB port is used for control purposes only. Oven is powered by appropriate sized Lithium-ion batteries, which can be mains supplied and/or recharged. It is the mobile phone frequencies that utilise prior long-term existing 900MHz (industrial) and 2450MHz (consumer) ISM approved microwave oven frequencies. I assure you we have sufficient power to effectively heat small type hand-snack food products.

Thanks your concern and interest ... Gordon Andrews

[end reply]

So, there you have it. With some big batteries and high efficiency, maybe they can make it work. But it's sure not going to be using just the power of the USB port.

Tell me again about how expert's blogs are going to rule the media world :-( (as opposed to the reality of "Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest")

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:48 PM | Comments (1)
March 20, 2008

Debunking Wikimedia Foundation "executive chairman" story

[Real journalism here! Not an echo! Even if nobody reads it ...]

There was a gossip-blog story yesterday which claimed that Jimmy Wales secretly retains legal control of the Wikimedia Foundation (the owner of Wikipedia):

A Florida business registration for the nonprofit filed last May shows Wales's title did change -- but to "EC," short for "executive chairman," a worker in Florida's Department of State confirms. On paper, Wales still outranks Devouard. Could he have told her that "EC" stands for "emeritus chair," while secretly keeping legal authority over Wikipedia to himself?

I was extremely skeptical, but since there's been so much dirt coming out recently I didn't ignore it entirely (which I should have). I wasted entirely too much time chasing it around Florida's Department of State. According to what I was told, the above quote is just wrong. A registration can have any set of titles that the organization wants. There's no legal standard. If they say "EC" stands for "emeritus chair", it's up to them. If they wanted to make up a title "Godking", they could. There's no big revelation, the form is exactly a trivial report.

Look, I understand that since the Wikipedia cult functions as a hype machine, with drama and scandal aplenty, figuring out what's reasonable and what's paranoia is not always easy. But this item was out into literal paranoia reaches. It was an accusation of major, major fraud, possible criminality. The number of Board members who would have had to go along with misrepresentation made it dubious on its face.

This sort of stuff is counter-productive for Wikipedia critics.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)
March 10, 2008

Sex, Lies, And Wikipedia Scandals Of Jimmy Wales

I go back and forth between thinking the lid is finally coming off the extremely seamy underside of the cult of Wikipedia, and a sympathy backlash when I see some of the severe errors which have been made in the reporting of the various scandals. I can't decide if it's all ending up as rough justice where multiple attention-mongers deserve what they get from each other, or if many wrongs don't make any right.

Here's one specific example from "The Sydney Morning Herald"
More woes for Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales

Earlier, an ex-girlfriend, Rachel Marsden, leaked instant messaging transcripts that purported to show Wales using his influence to improperly make changes to Marsden's Wikipedia entry so he could continue "f---ing [her] brains out".

In fact, that's a direct lift of phrasing from sensationalist blog ValleyWag, self-described as "Silicon Valley's Tech Gossip Rag", which has

While they were together, Wales promised Marsden swift action on edits so he could "continue fucking [her] brains out."

That phrases it as if Wales stated a quid-pro-quo, of edits for sex. But he didn't say that. The whole quote in context is:

jimbo.wales: right so the way it is told now, hang on a second
let's actually do this right now
because the last thing I want to do is take a break from fucking your brains out all night to work on your wikipedia entry :)

Note there's no "continue" in the real quote. That is, he basically said he wanted to get the work done so it doesn't interrupt play, not that he's trading edits for trysts. The word "continue" shows that the _Morning Herald_ got it from ValleyWag. So an inaccurate gossip blog post has been reputation-laundered into a far more prestigious venue. And henceforth an edits-for-sex accusation-cloud is going to follow Jimmy Wales around forever.

Live by media manipulation, die by media manipulation?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:50 PM | Comments (3)
December 14, 2006

Gooptions As Case Study Of The Failure Of Journalism (MSM Or "Citizen")

The Google Employee Stock Options coverage has been a case study in uncritical thinking. I know, what else is new, but I'll say it anyway.

About the best other criticism I've found is an excellent post on SearchViews, doing time-value calculations, about the aspect of that the plan dramatically shortens the time of the option when the employee sells it.

Initially hailed as an innovative HR strategy, then called "good for investors", the option plan has received so much praise that Internet Outsider asks, "If anyone has figured out the drawbacks of Google's new transferable option plan, please weigh in, because at first glance it looks like a win all around." Though numerous 'draw backs' have been suggested, including "an employee rush for exits", "shareholder dilution" and "arrogance", I'm surprised that no one has pointed out the most important nugget from plan's fine print: [detailed calculation]

But it's almost all been echoing of Google's announcement, or confusion over what the "transfer"/sale system does - and what it does not do. For example, there is no innovation here in determining the value of a Google stock price option. There's already a big public market in trading such options. The auction is basically just to determine who is the low bidder for handling the employee option transaction, given there's some weird constraints in the process. Which bring me to one simple example, in discussing the program, where what should be grist for serious reporting has apparently passed unnoticed:

Institutional buyers, who will be invited by Google to participate, will not be able to resell the employee stock options.

No offense meant to any reporter, but what in the world does this sentence MEAN? That is, it should be a big red flag that something strange is going on. Options on a stock are bought and sold all the time. How is the institutional buyer intended to distinguish from "the employee stock options" and "the stock options bought from yesterday's sheep-shearing"?

And this connects to the earlier issue of why not just let employees sell their stock options on the open market? After thinking about it for a while, I *suspect* this has to with the connection between the options and the underlying stock, maybe that if employee options were released into the open market, they would have to be covered by the company issuing stock (or something similar). But if they're just "transfered" to an institution, they still exist in accounting format as options, so certain negative effects (from Google's point of view) are avoided.

Wouldn't you like to know what this is all about? I would. I'm sure there's a professor of finance out there somewhere, who could explain it all. And might even be *blogging* - to an audience of a few hundred people. But they definitely haven't been found by the big echo chambers. And if that person ever did receive a little attention, the blog-evangelists would shout from their hilltops, the bogosphere triumphs - there's a specialist somewhere on the planet, so "overall" - not counting the endless hype reverberating from the massive audience "blogs", and also discounting that "old media" includes small trade newsletters too - blogs win!

I really think it says something profound about the failure of journalism in terms of civic structure, that random unpaid volunteers are supposed to provide the work that isn't supported otherwise.

STEWART: ... it's not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America.

STEWART: You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.

[Update: Changed title from earlier version - share the blame]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
September 17, 2006

Adventures in Unpaid Freelancing, aka Citizen Journalism - Nonlethal Weapon Edition

[This post is dedicated to those people sincerely self-deluded or professionally delusional who think the bogosphere is democracy's (not demagoguery's) last best hope on Earth]

When I saw the Air Force / Non-lethal weapons testing story, on a mailing list, critical thought lead me to be immediately skeptical. So I started to dig around for material to write a reply (note the context is that I assume, or at least hope, members of the mailing-list will read the reply).

First problem, why blogging doesn't work: Blog references to the article are virtually all echoes or rants about it. In a hot story, there's piles and piles of these, making finding actual information difficult. I couldn't find any explanatory material. Just lots of arguing.

So I decided to do some actual work, and called the Air Force to ask them about what was really said. Note there's no incentive to do this. Just to argue.

It's really very easy. The media people just ask your name and affiliation.

Note from the field: I'd feel absolutely ludicrous replying to such a question by saying "I'm a citizen journalist". It sounds ridiculous. Worse than "I'm second-class", because even being second-class at least is in the rankings. More like "I'm a nobody pompously playing make-believe". Anyway, these days, one of the minor benefits of all the blog-hype is that saying "I'm a blogger" works well enough, not requiring involved explanations.

And I was promptly emailed a transcript. Which is sadly just the start of the effort required if I'm going to try to make much use of the material.

Now, if I want to be heard in the bogosphere, I have to pitch to gatekeepers. Which ones? Note you really have to know the "Writer's Market" here (the blog-evangelist's idea that, little Z-lister, you can make a hyperlink to the big boy's story, and some day, someone might actually search and follow it amidst all the spam and me-too and hell-in-a-handbasket, and read YOU-YES-YOU, doesn't that prospect just fill you with thrills at civic participation, come to the meConference and work for free - these people have nothing on "Let them eat cake").

The problem is that the left-wing side would not be interested in a debunking of the latest They're-Coming-To-Get-Us, and the right-wing side, well, that's a dangerous game. I suppose I could have asked some of the media A-listers for attention ("looky looky here, cit-i-zen jour-nal-ism"). But frankly, the thinker BigHeads don't send all that much traffic. Their specific power is more indirect, of nominating a person as worthy of being a junior club-member. And asking them for links also involves the backscratching relationships, where they may feel that criticism is disloyal (another aspect where personal nature tends to lead to cliquishness).

I settled for some comments, which drew a few dozen hits, and trying the Boingers (post accepted, ~ 1500 hits). All in all, it was a drop in the bucket, and arguably a lot of wasted time on my part. I know people are going to say it was worth it. But the problem there is that doesn't consider the cost to me, versus the lack of benefit to me.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Comments (8)
September 13, 2006

TRANSCRIPT - Air Force Secretary On Nonlethal Weapons, Testing, US crowds

[In response to my query to the Air Force regarding the nonlethal weapons story and what was actually said by Secretary Michael Wynne, this was received directly by email from:

SECAF Strategic Communications Advisor
HAF/CX, 4E547
DSN 224-8065;


Context: Defense Writers Group, 12 Sep
Current line of questions concern F-35

15 minutes, 13 seconds into interview

Q. Why haven't you sold the capabilities, the non-lethal, the HPM, capabilities of this (the F-35) airplane? I went to talk with the Australians and that was one of the big things they wanted out of it, was the weapons and jamming capability and the communications capability and the radar. The Italians said the same thing, they said 'our parliament hates dropping bombs on people' they want a non-lethal weapon, but yet, nothing is said about those capabilities and your desire to push them. Do you want to push them? Is there resistance against it?

A. Non-lethal weapons are still being reviewed by the medical group. It's a kind of an interesting thing about non-lethal weapons. I will tell you that having seen the high-powered microwave that is a crowd disperser, the ADS system, used in a system and actually being invited to put your finger in the hole and by golly you'll see that your resistance is somewhat weakened when the beam hits you. Basically my point to them was (that) we need to start using that here in the United States on Americans. And if we start using that here in the United States on Americans and you start getting relief from people, because if the first people you use it on are your enemies, then unfortunately the first thing they will do is cry out that you have hurt them medically in a way that is pejorative.

Q. You mean like in police work?

A. Yes. So I think we should use it, if we're not willing to use it here, against our fellow citizens then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation. And I say that knowing the way the world works right now is that - the Indians as you remember in the early 1800s and mid-1800s thought you were stealing their soul when you hit them with a flash camera. You were actually covering them in soot, which may have been the same thing. But nowadays if I hit someone with a non-lethal weapon and they claim it injured them in a way that was non-intended, I think I'd be vilified in the world press.

Q. So we're not going to see funding to develop those non-lethal capabilities in the F-22 and F-35 then until?.

A. Until that is resolved.

Q. Ok, would that then put a horizon on the development of those kind of capabilities out 10-15 years?

A. I'd say that the platform as a platform contains enough power, which is derived from the engines. I think the power is there to support a high-powered non-lethal device, but right now the tech lags, and it lags primarily in size. Fighters are only so big. And the scope of usage. It's right now the stuff of great novels.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:39 PM | Followups

DEBUNKING Air Force Secretary Test Nonlethal Weapons On US crowds First Hype

Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs is causing much reaction, with many people making far more of it than seems justified (remember, popularity comes from hype, not from being accurate). I wrote the following for a mailing-list, reposting it. Transcript to follow.

I hate to sound like a Bush apologist, but fair is fair - it reads to me like a "GOTCHA!" by the reporter. Key aspects which should be red flags for some skepticism are that:

a) The most inflammatory aspects are the reporter's paraphrase
b) It's given a sensationalistic headline
c) Context is carefully elided as to what preceded the actual quote

I conjecture that what happened was something like the following (and if a transcript comes out, we'll know, though it'll be too late):

Reporter: Mr Secretary, there's been some work on nonlethal weapons. Although these aren't considered safe to use yet in the US, would the Air Force consider using them in Iraq battles?

Secretary: [article quote] "If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

[i.e. paraphrased - No, we should eat our own dog food. And if we use something in Iraq that we haven't used in the US, we'll get slammed as doing Dr. Strangelove type experiments on the Iraqis.]

[Reporter: GOTCHA! "Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs"] [I suspect if the answer had been the opposite, the article would have been "Air Force will use Iraqis as guinea pigs to test science-fiction weapons"]

That answer is a perfectly reasonable, even slightly laudable, reply in context. Even if it's not exactly nice to talk about PR negatives from weapons use, so that part was a moral _faux pas_, pragmatically he did have a point.

The article's more about pressing people's fear buttons than anything else.

By the way, there aren't any truly non-lethal weapons. A little while ago in Boston, a bystander was killed by a pepper-gun pellet which went through her eye then into her brain.


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:18 PM | Comments (2)
May 27, 2006

"EU SMS/email tax" story debunked

[The EU lawmakers consider taxing emails, SMS messages" story is echoing now. I wrote the following debunking for a mailing-list, in a futile attempt to use the wonderous power of The Internet and unpaid freelancing, I mean, "citizen journalism", to debunk bad reporting. We see how well that's working ...]

As far as I can tell, this story is being blown way, way, out of proportion. The EU is nowhere near taxing e-mail or text messages. One member put forth the idea in a discussion, but it's unclear if anything ever happened after that. I managed to trace back what might be the source:


"Participants were not short of imagination for new forms of funding: taxes on flights, company profits or even on short text messages sent by mobile phones. The supporter of this idea, EP own resources rapporteur Alain Lamassoure (EPP-ED, FR), also believed that the new system would have to be clearly linked with benefits drawn from the European Union. Thanks to the internal market "exchanges between countries have ballooned, so everyone would understand that the money to finance the EU should come from the benefits engendered by the EU," he explained."

Then there was an interview with a newspaper, EU Observer, which is now locked in pay-archives, though there's some excerpts here:

Alain Lamassoure has a website here:

There's a forum where he's responding, but it's in French, and I don't feel comfortable attempting to translate his replies.

But there's a vast difference between some woolgathering, and any sort of formal proposal, much less anything being enacted.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:43 PM
January 10, 2006

Declan McCullagh E-annoyance

aka, Declan McCullagh Is At It Again.

Some assorted debunking, from various lawyers:


[Orin Kerr, January 10, 2006 at 1:12am]
A Skeptical Look at "Create an E-annoyance, Go to Jail":

Declan McCullagh has penned a column that is custom-designed to race around the blogosphere. It begins:

"Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime. It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity. ... [ed: snip]"

This is just the perfect blogosphere story, isn't it? It combines threats to bloggers with government incompetence and Big Brother, all wrapped up and tied togther with a little bow. Unsurprisingly, a lot of bloggers are taking the bait.

Skeptical readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the truth is quite different. ...

[I can't help but think that when Orin Kerr at "Volokh Conspiracy" writes a post like the above, you know Declan has been utterly egregious.]


Daniel Solove

Declan's article is misleading. The provision extends a telephone harassment law to apply to email. Declan describes the provision as applying whenever a person "annoys" another: "A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity."

But that's not what the law says. Instead it provides:

"Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

Note that "annoy" is part of the intent element of the statute -- it requires the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass. Far from an anti-anonymity provision that applies whenever a person annoys another, it is merely a prohibition on harassment. Declan writes: "In other words, it's OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as long as you do it under your real name." I don't see any basis for the law to apply in this instance.

[Addition 1/12: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/siva/archives/002638.html

Ann Bartow

"I may be missing something, but I don't think either e-mail or web logs would be considered "telecommunications devices" that would be subject to the stated prohibitions (which, in fairness, are awfully vague)."


There's a legislative summary here: http://www.gop.gov/Committeecentral/bills/hr3402.asp

To strengthen stalking prosecution tools, this section expands the definition of a telecommunications device to include any device or software that uses the Internet and possible Internet technologies such as voice over internet services. This amendment will allow federal prosecutors more discretion in charging stalking cases that occur entirely over the internet.

[Sigh .. Why should I bother? What good does it do? It'll be the exact same credulity all around the next time Declan McCullagh makes up a story]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:41 PM | Comments (7)
May 04, 2005

Al Gore, Webby Award, Internet, Journalists

[I received this from a PR person, but consider it a mutual interest to post]


New York, NY (May 3, 2005) - The winners of The 9th Annual Webby Awards will be saluted alongside former Vice President Al Gore at the internet honors' ceremony in New York City on June 6th, the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences announced today.


The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award: Former Vice President Al Gore

Setting the record straight on one of recent history's most persistent political myths, The Webby Awards will present Former Vice President Al Gore with The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the pivotal role he has played in the development of the internet over the past three decades. Vint Cerf, widely credited as one of the "fathers of the internet," will present Vice President Gore with the award.

As my page of Al Gore "invented the Internet" - resources documents, this myth has indeed been persistent. In fact, just very recently, the person who outright invented the story, Declan McCullagh ( "If it's true that Al Gore created the Internet, then I created the "Al Gore created the Internet" story."), was still propagating it in his columns ("... and Al Gore's apparently serious claim to have "created" the Internet.").

Note that extensive rebuttal in the comments, sadly does no good.

This leads to one of my questions to those infatuated with the idea of feedback and blogs fact-checking journalists: What if the "journalist" just doesn't care? What if he knows that what he writes, even if politically appealing fiction (in fact, especially if politically appealing fiction), will be sent to a huge number of people, and any corrections in comments or relatively trivial blogs will reach an insignificant audience? We have here a perfect case study of the phenomena.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
March 04, 2005

Debunking Declan McCullagh's "The Coming Crackdown On Blogging"

Debunking proceeds apace, for whatever effect it may have:

Lincoln Plawg: McCain-Feingold the blog-killer? ("Conclusion of my first cut at this: the threat to the blogosphere is greatly exaggerated.") [via Crooked Timber]

Lots of links at:

Electrolite: More on the FEC, particularly:

Waldo Jaquith - The FEC is not going to regulate blogs ("Suffice it to say, Bradley Smith has every reason to rally the troops in strong opposition to the recently-enacted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold) and campaign finance laws on the whole. And it seems that he's found a crew of suckers: bloggers.")

Iron Mouth: There Will Be No Crackdown ... ("Thus, Bradley Smith is pushing the truth a long way when he says that the judge is pushing the FEC to start going after every single link in every blog directing to a candidate's website.")

My contribution, of uncommon links:

Declan McCullagh has a history of hype-filled, yellow, "journalism", Have another, old, example:


WASHINGTON -- US currency should include tracking devices that let the government tax private possession of dollar bills, a Federal Reserve official says.

When reading one of these articles, a grain of salt isn't enough, you need a whole salt-mine. And it's a stark warning as to what lies on the other end of the idea of "objectivity". This isn't a situation where one has to fiddle around with talk about cultural prejudice or unconscious bias. Declan McCullagh is a dogmatic Libertarian proselytizer.

And how much skepticism was applied, by far too few people, who reflexively echoed his Cato-mouthpiece agenda-driven scare-mongering?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
March 03, 2005

"The Coming Crackdown On Blogging" - Declan McCullagh's At It Again

The Coming Crackdown On Blogging is today's hype. I had more material, but I dumped it, as not worth it. I do have something original to add:

Folks, here's a tip. Whenever you see Declan McCullagh flacking one of these "product placements", search against the Cato Institute site for the person's name. Works like a charm. It's like looking at the levers which move the mouth of the ventriloquist's dummy.

In this case, a Bradley Smith search quickly tells us all about campaign-finance reform from the Libertarian perspective, and just a little more searching give various opposition.

This flackery may not reach the height of Declan McCullagh's Al Gore hit-piece, or even the Howard Dean hatchet-job. But it's of similar ilk.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
March 01, 2005

Slashdot "Editor Upgrade" Updates

There's a few items worth noting on the Slashdot "Editor Upgrade" story, and I as seem to be in the position of providing the most investigative facts on the matter, I'll do an update.

Even a month later, nobody who I would consider to be a "reliable source" is willing to talk. At this point, I'd provisionally infer from the silence everywhere that something did happen. But it's still utterly opaque.

The Censorware Project domain-hijack continues, with the renewal yet again of the censorware.org domain.

[Update May 21 2005: There may have been an autorenewal and nonpayment issue. The domain was at last able to be reclaimed in May 2005]

According to the WHOIS information now (emphasis mine):

Created On:25-Feb-1998 05:00:00 UTC
Last Updated On:25-Feb-2005 05:06:53 UTC
Expiration Date:24-Feb-2006 05:00:00 UTC

Remember, this hijacking basically did not matter in terms of any perceptible consequences for it. Whatever the truth of the reasons behind Slashdot's, err, "personnel change", I sadly doubt abusiveness played much of a part.

People keep telling me about the anonymous posting purportedly giving an insider account. I've been hesitant to give this more prominence. Perhaps I should have debunked it earlier. In my view, it's a "classic" troll posting. That is, not the absurd things about e.g. supposedly possessing an incriminating smuggled phonecam video capture of Satanic sex orgies with goats aboard the Slashdot yacht (that string should lead to some "interesting" Google hits ...). But rather, a well-crafted story which would be superficially credible.

It's reasonably written, However, any account talking about "[he] actually did move from New York to Canada to protest George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001", just can't be taken seriously, because that's fiction. Amusing fiction, maybe. Deserves points for creativity, perhaps. But, sigh, not the real story all the same.

I haven't tested or inquired to see if anything's different in terms of my possibly being un-marginalized in terms of having stories considered for posting at Slashdot. It just feels, well, futile ("Hey guys, now that the infamously abusive domain-hijacker who made confidential legal information available to censorware companies, and gladly worked with them to stop me from investigating censorware, and was even cited by them in formal DMCA testimony against me, is now gone, would a submission from an award-winning free-speech pioneer be treated fairly?"). I suppose I should ask, on pain of being deemed defeatist otherwise. But it's ... humiliating. sad face

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:53 PM
February 14, 2005

Slashdot "Editor Upgrade" CONFIRMED!

"Michael Sims fired Slashdot" has been one of the most popular Google searches to my website recently.

While I cannot determine if he was in fact fired from his Slashdot editor position, as distinguished from any other type of departure, it is with great pleasure that I can break the following news:

The OSTG (parent company of Slashdot) page of Editorial Bios (http://www.ostg.com/about/editorial_bios.htm) has now been revised and updated.

The name "Michael Sims", which previously was present, has now been removed from the listings.

This information is objective, and can be validated by visiting the page above.

"Editor Upgrade" Confirmed!

Excuse me for a moment. happy face

"E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-EDITOR!!"

While I hope my reaction is understandable to long-time readers, people visiting this page from a search engine might want to read:

Michael Sims, Domain Hijacking and Moral Equivalency
Moral Equivalence and Censorware Project's hijacked domain
Bennett Haselton on Michael Sims' hijacking of censorware.org

And I didn't write any of that, and it's not from infamous flamers with axes to grind.

Unfortunately, this happens too late for me. But who knows? Maybe I'll eventually get a formal apology from someone at Slashdot. Stranger things have happened. Perhaps their minds are no longer closed.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:15 PM | Comments (8)
February 04, 2005

Slashdot "Editor Upgrade" citizen-journalism inquiries come to naught

My "hyperlocal journalism" efforts to find out more about the Slashdot "editor upgrade" seemed to have reached a dead-end. The only new information I have is:

Watch the OSTG page of Editorial Bios (http://www.ostg.com/about/editorial_bios.htm). I believe if/when that page is revised, it will confirm the "upgrade" is true and complete.

Given that the low-level Slashdot employees aren't talking (at least to me), my original idea was to approach the journalistic problem from a different direction. Start from the corporate offices, and then go downwards, hoping to find someone who has knowledge of personnel, but is disinterested in the internal Slashdot politics. This hasn't worked, since even if the necessary person exists, finding him/her requires more skill at hierarchy-navigation and telephone-tag than I possess.

Today I had a variation on the idea - try the middle. I briefly talked to an OSTG'er who at last knew what the website "Slashdot" was. But they didn't have anything to say beyond what sounded like sincerely helpful advice to talk to the person in charge of Slashdot (i.e., they didn't know anything, as opposed to knowing but not telling). Again, no "personal" factors here, it was standard editorial/journalist conversation.

At this point, I'm out of ideas, and am beginning to worry I'm taking too many chances. Investigative journalism takes time and persistence, and it's tough to do it for nothing. Let's see, maybe the great distributed power of the bogosphere can emergently produce the necessary information (not speculation). If I find anything (which sadly seems unlikely), I'll clearly mark the provenance of the information, and will not expect to be taken on face value. Anonymously remailed messages will be treated with the credibility they warrant - although I may privately chuckle at a good troll, I must decline to be a conduit.

I have my own speculations, but given my, well, let's say non-objectivity, I'd rather not add to the rumor-mill without something to back up my thoughts.

[Update 2/5 - a comment points out that the Bio page still lists Simon Carless ("simoniker"), even though "he left months ago".]

[Update #2 2/5 - Interestingly, Simon Carless' linklog has an entry on February 05, 2005:

Michael 'Zonk' Zenke now full-time Slashdot editor (Congrats! Coincides with the departure of Michael, and good luck to him.)


[Update #3 2/5 - In response to an email inquiry, Simon clarifies that he has no first-hand information. ]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:06 PM | Comments (8) | Followups
February 02, 2005

Slashdot "Editor Upgrade"?

There is a rumor that Slashdot has undergone an "editor upgrade". I don't know anything about it beyond what's available to the general public.

In the tradition of, err, "hyperlocal journalism", I called the parent company, OSTG, and tried to find someone who could confirm or deny "a rumor of a personnel change at the website Slashdot" (as I phrased it). I got shunted to a marketing person who wasn't in the office, so that was a dead end (n.b., it can't have been personal, as I was never asked who I was).

I sent some e-mail inquiries to people who might tell me, and haven't gotten any reply. But I wouldn't be surprised there's a staff policy not to talk about personnel matters. On the other hand, I wouldn't draw any inference from my being ignored either.

It would be nice to have it be safe for me to submit stories to Slashdot. sad face. But even if so, it's really too late now. I've quit all censorware decryption research and pretty much now abandoned DMCA-fighting. So the damage has been done, and I don't see myself ever going back to that activism. But there's still e.g. the Nitke v. Ashcroft Federal trial (about the Internet and "community standards" for obscenity), where I'm an expert witness.

But, as I've mentioned many a time, Slashdot's de facto support connected to the domain hijacking of Censorware Project did tremendous harm. So an "editor upgrade" would mean something to me, but much less than might naively be thought.

[Note, yes, the language in this post is deliberately careful]

[Update 2/3 : I did another round of calling OSTG, another dead-end, this time at human resources. To give a sense of perspective, in my bureaucracy meanderings, I have yet to speak to anyone who has even heard of Slashdot! (or at least is willing to admit it ...). And nobody who might know is willing to leak to me.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:09 PM
January 21, 2005

"WebCred" Conference comments, or Love For The Linklorn

As the "Webcred" "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" Harvard conference begins, let me make the the probably futile effort of attempting to draw attention to some valuable perspectives. Here are some gems buried in the comments:

If this conference were a news article, I think it would be fair game to point out that it's full of sources and quotes talking about a third party, without including any quotes from that third party. In that situation, I think we'd be within our rights to question that news article's credibility. Given that this conference is about blogging, journalism, and (yes) credibility, I'd like to think the organizers might find that troubling.

("The One True b!X", who actually does unpaid, I mean "citizen's", journalism, at the underattentioned Portland Communique)

How come everybody talks about bloggers in pajamas when all I keep finding are corporate lawyers with ties to Republican Administrations and big, fat corporate clients?

What's going on here?

(Richard Succer, regarding that many A-list right-wing bloggers are not exactly proletarian)

: The ethic of pomposity: We believe in speaking for persons other than ourselves.

: The ethic of narcissism: We love to hear ourselves speak. We can't get enough of ourselves.

: The ethic of humanity: We repeat ourselves, endlessly.

: The ethic of the wank: We believe in linking to people who kiss our ass. Everyone else can kiss our ass.

: The ethic of correction: We believe it is vital to correct errors when we can't weasel out of it. And then we bitch about everyone who mentions our error, and pout.

: The ethic of idiocy: We accuse others of placing peoples' lives in danger by mentioning things we mentioned long ago. We have no shame.

("Jar Jar Vinks", parodying a certain A-lister)

the problem here is that "news" (at least the credible kind) and "business" are mutually exclusive. We can turn news into a "conversation", make it transparent, etc...but we won't unless the delivery of news is separated from the profit motive.

And that ain't happening.

In reality, the changes in the "business model" for news delivery will result not in a conversation with the news consumer, but will be a mirror of the consumer's own prejudices. [...]

This "tailored news" will be the model, because it will provide the business of "news" with an enormous amount of information that the "business" can use to sell advertising that is just as personalized and directed as your news feed.

That's why this conference (and your questions) are really just a bad joke. The war is already over, even if the combatants don't know it yet.... and "democratic government based on an informed citizenry" lost to "corporate profits"

(Paul Lukasiak, GLCQ)

See also:

Shelley Powers' post Give Unto Harvard that which is Harvard's

Paul Lukasiak: Open Letter to WebCred Conference


Frank Paynter's compilation Web Cred Conference Player Scorecard

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:59 AM | Followups
January 20, 2005

"WebCred" Conference, and why it matters

The issues surrounding the "Webcred" Harvard conference continue to ferment (see also my earlier "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" post, and to be fair, a conference FAQ).

One of my enduring frustrations in dealing with many people at the Berkman Center. is that they operate within an extremely insular bubble of enormous privilege, protection, and power. They just don't seem to take into account the damage the "H-bomb" (Harvard) can do to civilians, and how people can get hurt by their actions. Even if it wasn't malicious, even if it was just careless, or alternately do-what-you-have-to-do, that's small comfort to those on the receiving end of maltreatment. (disclosure/disclaimer: See the story of the Mike Godwin / Greplaw attacks for reasons I speak from experience here).

I've seen an amazing amount of cluelessness, including wonder that anyone could worry about negative aspects, as well as not do backflips that there's boy-oh-boy an IRC channel and a webcast (aren't you super-excited right there? You can follow along with the performers, and they might even acknowledge questions from the audience, if it's something they find worthy, wow wow, are we interactive yet?).

Consider: This is how Zephyr Teachout starts her infamous blog post discussing the Howard Dean campaign's arrangement with consultants who also had blogs (my emphasis):

"[Note: this post was written in anticipation of a conference next week on ethics, blogging, and journalism]"

That post created a significant political story. And the Webcred conference's publicity for it was the source of the eventual mass-media smears, per Ed Cone (my emphasis):

And over at Kos, they're wondering how the WSJ found out about this story in the first place, and they manage to trace it to my link to Zephyr and links from Instapundit and Jarvis. But they miss the first step: I read it on the Harvard conference blog.

Jerome Armstrong really got smeared by this whole thing, and he's pissed. I should have been clearer on his role in my original link to Zephyr's post, and I apologize for not doing it right.

Note, to forestall a distraction, the effect does not necessarily require saying "This is true". Rather, it's in an implication "This is worthwhile, this is important, this should be given your attention, etc.". However, in context, that's very, very close to "This is true", (though not absolutely identical) and the differences are much smaller than the overall connection. The issue is the power to focus attention on a statement, to give it a platform where it will be widely echoed and heard.

After the role the Harvard conference just played in getting those activists very widely and publicly smeared, the "little people" shouldn't have to explain over and over why it matters. It's a testament to the strength of the bubble that this point will not be grasped.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:19 AM | Followups
January 10, 2005

CBS Memos Report

The CBS Memos Report is now available in all its glory. Let the games begin!

The wingnuts are amusingly disappointed that the investigative panel does not rant "Liberal! Liberal! Liberal!" on every page, which is the framework by which they judge all things.

For myself, I'm fascinated by the report as it's a documentary in itself about the seamy underbelly of journalism. Too many such examinations are partisan hatchet-jobs. Rarely do we get a public investigation which has such a combination of thoroughness, detail, and not filled with political noise. Pure signal.

A rare look into the sausages:

[page 163] ... The point would be to shift the conversation from CBS did something wrong, to something wrong was done to us and we're mad as hell.

West rejected Howard's suggestion via a return e-mail at 8:39 a.m.:

I think we need to defend ourselves specifically [and] not even concede that we think it could be a hoax.


[page 189] The Panel believes that such a detailed criticism was yet another occasion that should have resulted in an immediate and careful review of all the reporting behind the September 8 Segment. Instead of reviewing the reporting, however, CBS News simply continued to defend staunchly the September 8 Segment. ...

Such drama.

Ernest Miller has more along similar lines.

Anyway, I'm not going to write too much about it. The "Gatekeepers of the Media vs. Blog Triumphalism" post I did a while back, languished basically unread (and I have to be careful what I wish for, because I don't think I'd like what would have had to happen for it to be read). In any event, all the Usual Suspects are out in force.

But to me, the issue isn't "liberalism". It's "journalism".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (3) | Followups
January 09, 2005

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility"

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility" is a conference, well, I'll quote:

... an invitation-only conference to be held on January 21st and 22nd, 2005 entitled "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground." The conference, which will bring together a select group of thoughtful bloggers and journalists, is being organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, the American Library Association's Office of Information Technology and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


To both journalism and blogging, credibility is essential. What are the areas of common ground shared by these very different approaches to handling news and information? Can journalists who also blog do their work without conflicting standards? Might bloggers adopt standards and a transparency that will elevate their credibility? Our purpose is to bring together a small group of smart and thoughtful people to ponder these and other related issues, which will result in a published report and - we hope - will mark the beginning of an on-going and very important dialogue.

The subject matter of the conference has been, err, "controversial", given the issues of "credibility", and the background of the participants. I summarized the problem in the following well-received comment:

It was all about cats
and their habitats
But they only invited
the dogs and the rats

[Not original with me, I read it somewhere]

I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility. All names which I recognize are well-ensconced "club members", the sort of people who already have institutional validation as academics and/or journalists. They *are already considered* "credible", in a professional sense. This doesn't mean their reflections on the topic are wrong, but it might make the collective exploration somewhat limited, as a factual matter.

If the purpose is to puff the participants resumes, well, *shrug*, I suppose that's not a bad thing in itself, and there's not a whole lot for anyone else to say beyond pointing it out.

[Disclosure/disclaimer - although the suggestion that I should have an affiliation with the Berkman Center is sometimes raised by uninformed or well-intentioned people, realistically the chance of that happening these days is zero.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
December 21, 2004

Fact-Checking And Journalists

Here's two notes on posts I'm not going to write, and why, to add to reality-based thinking about blogs.

EFF's recent spam paper Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam has the following parade of horrible:

For example, the technology journalist Declan McCullagh reports that SpamCop blacklisted his email list ... Rectifying the situation proved difficult, and McCullagh was incorrectly listed as a spammer with SpamCop two more times after that.

Oh boy, is there more to the story than appears in that paragraph! But what's the point of my taking it on? Spam politics is a war-zone, and I'm unarmored. I don't need the fight. I'll just note a question for all the people enamored of the supposed power of blogs in fact-checking journalists:

What happens when someone fact-checks a journalist, and the journalist can just reply: "Sod off"? (or, for that matter, "Are you high?")

Further on the topic of blogs, facts, and journalists, the official report concerning the CBS forged memos scandal is due soon. This will be the result of the network's own internal investigation. I've thought of trying to expand a post I did on Gatekeepers of the Media vs. Blog Triumphalism, which examines the huge institutional support in going after Dan Rather. But the prospect of stirring up a hornet's nest of raving wingnuts, is not appealing. I'm not a club-member of one of the political alliances, so either nobody will hear it, or I'll just get slammed.

So much for the ability to be heard ...

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
September 20, 2004

CBS and Dan Rather admit forged memos, blogs, and The Pajama Game

Statements From CBS News and Dan Rather

CBS News Acknowledges That, Based on Subsequent Reporting on Questions About Documents, It Cannot Prove They are Authentic and, Therefore, They Should Not Have Been Used in the '60 Minutes Wednesday' Report

Now, compare (via iblog):

VIDEO OF JONATHAN KLEIN [FORMER CBS NEWS EXECUTIVE]: It's an important moment, you couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances, and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas, writing what he thinks.

With Washington Post: In Rush to Air, CBS Quashed Memo Worries:

But in separate phone calls to [60 Minutes producer Mary] Mapes that day, two of the network's outside experts tried to stop the journalistic train, or at least slow it down.

Linda James said she "cautioned" CBS "if they ran it, that the problems I saw, that other document examiners would see. It just wasn't ready. The package wasn't ready. It didn't meet authenticating [standards]. To go at that stage, I just couldn't imagine."

Emily Will said she called the network that Tuesday and repeated her objections as strongly as possible. "If you air the program on Wednesday," she recalled saying, "on Thursday you're going to have hundreds of document examiners raising the same questions."

There's now an outpouring of blather, because this all makes for a good story and talk-fodder: David vs. Goliath, Revolution vs. Dinosaur, New vs. Old Grassroots vs Established, CYBERSPACE!

But there's no popularity and links and echoing to be had in pointing out the simple fact that the problem is not that CBS didn't have the relevant information, but rather they just didn't want to hear it.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1) | Followups
September 14, 2004

Journalism, standards, power, and the CBS / 60 minutes documents scandal

Ernest Miller writes

The credibility and integrity of anyone directly involved in this CBS story is lost, I believe. They have been complicit in the stonewall as well as tarring the integrity of those who pointed out discrepancies in their reporting. ...
Furthermore, the credibility and integrity of every other journalist at CBS News is in question. ...
Moreover, the entire journalistic profession is threatened by the actions of a rogue CBS. ...
I am serious when I say that this has become a crisis for journalism.

Sadly, I think "the crisis in journalism" is an evergreen topic, right up there with "the trouble with kids today" and "the negativity of political campaigning". The forged memos events are a "scandal". Not a "crisis".

What we have here is akin to the story of the mugger whose target turns out to be a heavyweight boxer, or a police beating caught on national TV. It's extremely embarrassing for the particular individuals involved, possibly even career-ending for them. But the systematic problem (crime, corruption) doesn't change.

Journalism, as a profession, is a very arrogant and abusive institution (no offense to any of my journalist-friends reading this - the fact that you're my friend means you're an exception to the rule :-)). Organizationally, when covering stories, there's a very small number of covered people who are generally granted the minimum of fairness - these are, e.g. people in political power. They aren't granted this respect out of the kindness of the journalist's heart. But rather, because those people have the power to fight back. Anyone else outside the magic circle is fair game for just about any abuse, character-assassination, lies, "being used", and so on.

It's like being a "made member" of the Mafia. That wiseguy status doesn't mean you can't be killed. It just means there's some due process, some consultation, before the decision can be undertaken within the organization to kill you.

Part of the "standards" argument between journalists and non-journalists, is actually about who belongs in this magic circle of respect. Journalists are passionately concerned about this topic, since their professional lives depend on it. Who is prey, and who is a pack-member? It's similar to the Mafia rules about who you can steal from. In this case, a don tried to ripoff a godfather. Bad move. Very bad move. Someone is going to hurt for it. But after the dust settles, nothing will change.

Remember, if you're not at least connected, and a journalist does a hit-job on you, then what you hear (if you are so lucky to even get a reply) is generally just:

1) "We stand by our story"

2) A variant of: we're the journalists and you're not (and you're not objective)

Sound familiar? Now, the understandable anger generated at this cavalier treatment typically leads to all sort of blather about emergent revolutions, power to the working class, routing around Big Media, etc. But we just get a new boss in place of the old boss.

And it doesn't change because the structure of the situation doesn't change, the exponential distribution of power. There are those who have a great deal of power, and those who have much less power, and generally nobody cares when the powerful abuse the powerless.

Ernest, look at an example within our "community", recall how few consequences there have been for Slashdot "journalist" Michael Sims' domain hijacking of the original Censorware Project website. Attorney-member Jonathan Wallace wrote (emphasis added)

I was naively astonished by [the reactions of moral equivalence]. If the ACLU's webmaster had trashed the organization's site, I think everyone would pretty well recognize he was a Bad Character and Not To Be Trusted. As much more minor players, despite the significant contributions we had made in revealing what censorware actually blocked, no-one could be bothered to take a stand for us. There was nothing to be gained.

And Bennett Haselton (Peacefire) said (not me)

The fact that Slashdot hired Michael should be deeply embarrassing to them, ... But Slashdot is apparently too deeply wedded that decision to reconsider, and comments from [Michael Sims' direct supervisor] have been more of the same along the lines of "They should work out their differences" ...

Now, note the journalistic aspect here. All along, I've maintained various actions can be explained from pure power. The most public trivializing, sneering, dismissive remark came exactly from the person within Slashdot who had the most professional journalism experience, and was hired specifically for that sort of background. And rationally, it made complete sense in terms of his job. Whatever he thought in private, whatever was morally right or wrong, in public he made a calculation as to whether the outsiders had any power, merited any respect. And if not, protect the insider (see above, no support as "There was nothing to be gained").

And it didn't matter at all.

So, CBS will fire someone, find a scapegoat (I suspect the internal argument there right now is whether it's going to be Dan Rather himself, or the story's producer, or whether they can get away with just a flunky). The basic line will then be that the scandal is "old news", changes have been made, all is right in the world again. They will say "We've moved on, and so should you". And nothing will change. Since they reach the same large number of people they did beforehand, who have the same small concern for accuracy they did beforehand.

"Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for the rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge." - Erwin Knoll

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
June 25, 2004

CMP, Google News, and the Echo Chamber

Now that the claim that CMP Media was blocking Google News, seems to have proven unfounded (though they do block CNET, I've verified that), I was curious as to how it spread. An interesting thing about all the data available, is that often it's possible to make an attempt to trace the path of a story.

It turns out a trace has already been done in an article by Sam Whitmore's Media Survey. Birds on a Wire:

Jonathan Dube's cyberjournalist.net blog had no such luck Jun. 24 when it reported that CMP Media was blocking Google News from linking to CMP news articles.

Once one bird flew off the wire, others followed.


If Cyberjournalist.net says it saw CMP blocking Google News, then it did, as far as we're concerned. But no one else did. Did anyone from Cyberjournalist.net call CMP to ask why it was blocking Google News? You'll have to ask them. All we know is that Cyberjournalist.net filed the blog item and others picked it up.

In the spirit of skepticism, I did my own trace, with a Feedster search on CMP and Google. The results are similar to the above.

Interesting result: I'd never heard of Cyberjournalist.net before this. It seems to be a "local" A-list, in that net journalists and PR types know it, but not people outside the field. Maybe the story was stopped before it could really get going? Perhaps because it involved journalists, who are members of the tribe, and so are heard by other journalists, when they complain about wrong stories? (if so, that's not helpful to me for my own media defense problems).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
June 02, 2004

Dave Winer vs Big Media (or getting routed and run-around)

Dave Winer details being routed by Big Media:

We're getting nowhere with The Guardian on the lack of proper disclosure in Ben Hammersley's story about the supposed "wars" in the RSS community. The editors take weeks to respond, when they do they say the same thing over and over, they think his conflicts were adequately disclosed, but they don't explain why.

This is the arrogance of big media. ...

It's an op-ed piece that's not labeled as such, and no opportunity was provided for an opposing point of view. ...

Without taking sides on the RSS wars, I tender my sincerest sympathies on struggles with the media.

The lesson is this: For all the talk of "We Media" or "participatory journalism" or "citizen reporting" or some such, it's real clear where control lies. What happens when the journalist decides to blow-off any challenge? (e.g. sneering "Are you high?" or the like?)

Again, let's do some numbers. The Guardian has a circulation of 1,172,000. That's one million plus. The power-law lives.

Journalistic arrogance arises from very straightforward rational principles: They don't care. They don't have to. Because in general, they will reach far more people than anyone they abuse, so they have no accountability, except to others of similar power. And in general, telling one's friends the story doesn't alter anything. Case in point :-(.

And note there's nothing in the blog world which changes this. Power is power.

[I nearly didn't post this message, because of the potential recursive application, but I decided the violent agreement elements would probably let me get away with it]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2) | Followups
April 12, 2004

"US Declares War On Porn", versus journalism thoughts

The report of "US declares war on porn" has been generating much blog chatter. This post isn't about that article. Instead, it's a meta-post about "unpaid", I mean, "citizen", journalism connected to that "war" (inspired by recent blogs and journalism discussions). As I mentioned in my item Bruce Taylor, Declan McCullagh, and "rotten little kids", I recently attended the debate " New Media Forums and the First Amendment", where I had the opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues with one of the key figures in that "war on porn" (the aforementioned Bruce Taylor).

Now, in terms of ordinary people doing journalism, this is a fine case study. A Senior Counsel of the United States Department of Justice was quite willing to talk with me, even "on the record". He didn't ask me for my press credentials or name, rank, and serial number. He was in fact very nice and personable. I didn't need any special access or status. What I needed was time. Time to spend the day attending the Harvard symposium (which was free and open), then going to the reception. Then of course, there's the time spent if I wanted to write it up. I only wrote about one small part, rebutting where Declan McCullagh did another hatchet-job, as only a few people were going to read what I wrote. There was much more. But I'm supposed to volunteer all the journalistic effort, likely to go to waste, just for the joy and happiness of it? I'll pass. Because: Nobody is reading (comparatively).

Of course, I could have put in the time, and then put in even more time trying to get it accepted by an editor for a large audience publication, I mean, linked by an A-lister with a large readership. From this perspective, I'm a freelance journalist doing the same grind as every other freelance journalist. With the additional disadvantage that I won't even get paid peanuts if my article is accepted. Whoopie. Am I routing around Big Media yet?

This all takes effort. Flaming is easy: "The US government has declared war on porn, the fascists, isn't this just like those Religious Right fanatics in power to fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun. But they can't win, because The Internet will defeat them through its magic anti-censorship powers ..." (with a little polishing, that would even pass as some net-pundit's commentary).

Moreover, that mass of flaming forms a barrier - who is ever going to find my diamond of journalism amid the dross of all the sounding-off? A million vanity presses do not add up to a single well-researched report. But they sure can make that report hard to find.

Before someone tries to play 'gotcha!', and says I could have written the report instead of this very message, no, this message is much simpler. I don't have to fact-check it. I don't have to take extensive notes on another person's statements. I don't have to do any research.

I dislike a temptation I see by certain interests, to dispense with all the costly, difficult, expensive work - and replace it with the cheap stuff, your opinion, your comments, rant, rant, rant. Because that's very easy and far more popular. It's similar to talk radio. National Public Radio style issues discussion is boring, so get some shock-jocks instead. The voice of the people can be a euphemism for lowest common denominator.

Anyway, as I'm demonstrating, the question isn't if nonprofessionals can do journalism, in terms of ability. It's whether they can afford to do journalism, in terms of all the costs.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:21 AM | Comments (1) | Followups
March 31, 2004

More on "Belle de Jour" blog potential hoax

"The Book Club Blog" has a great collection of information as to whether the supposed "diary of a london call girl", the Belle de Jour blog, is a hoax.

I remain with the skeptics. "She" recently "said" (my emphasis):

Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, there is no conspiracy. I am a young woman, I have sex for money, and I love to read and write. My taste in books shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, this job affords more spare time than most. Think of Occam's razor, the principle of parsimony: what would be simpler - that I am who I say I am, and write about, or that I am a famous author living a double life, unable to tell anyone and having a joke at the expense of my agent, publisher and readers? What does bother me is the presumption that a person's occupation is a reflection of their intelligence or value to society:

Let me reframe:

"... that I am a real well-read call-girl who instantly writes award-winning polished prose, or that I am a not-so-famous author who would like to be more famous, and saw an opportunity to do so by writing a fake blog and feeding on the media appetite for sex and the Internet and blogs and selling papers via titillation and scandal?"

When this question is put forth, there's almost a lawyer-trick of deflecting the suspicion by pounding the table and accusing the skeptic of bigotry: You think prostitutes can't be smart! Sexist! Classist!

No. I think writing is hard work for anyone. And that Occam's razor, the principle of parsimony, is that an established writer claiming to be a media-attention-draw is very likely indeed, much more so than such a real person getting awards and book deals. It's just ghost-writing taken one step further, where the writer starts by creating the celebrity in the first place (rather a clever idea, in retrospect).

Given the forthcoming "Belle de Jour" book, I was tempted to suggest turning its Amazon book reviews section into a hoax-information discussion forum. But that's probably playing into the book's buzz-hype. Still, it was an appealing thought.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)
March 23, 2004

More on "Belle de Jour" as fake blog

Checking other "Belle de Jour" articles, I found one which argued skepticism based on a "Gender Genie", an algorithm for allegedly determining male or female authorship. Comments pointed out the statistics are unimpressive.

So I tried testing the infamous book review, the (female author) passage of text which supposedly formed the basis of the recent identity hunt.

In the results below, there's a caveat "(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)". All book reviews were given as "nonfiction" category writing.

Words: 256

Female Score: 74
Male Score: 346

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Amusing, when I clicked on feedback submission ( "Am I right? The author of this passage is actually ..."), the results were:

That is one butch chick.

According to Koppel and Argamon, the algorithm should predict the gender of the author approximately 80% of the time.
Accuracy Results
Am I right?
yes 129165 (63.72%)
no 73542 (36.28%)

Note coin-flipping will be right 50% of the time. So 80% is interesting, but not all that amazing. And 63%, for this implementation, seems only a slight improvement on the coin-flipping algorithm.

Testing a second review:

Words: 143
Female Score: 172
Male Score: 192
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Testing a third review:

Words: 261
Female Score: 337
Male Score: 280

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!

One out of three is bad (though granted, these are small-word samples)

So, now testing the "Belle de Jour" first month archive:

Considered as category "fiction" or "nonfiction":

Words: 1785
Female Score: 2138
Male Score: 1936

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!

Considered as category "blog entry" (apparently different keywords)

Words: 1785
Female Score: 2326
Male Score: 3384

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

I can't see these results as worth much at all.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:30 PM | Comments (3)
March 21, 2004

"Belle de Jour" and literary forensics

The Belle de Jour blog is supposedly a "diary of a london call girl", written by an anonymous prostitute. Given that "she"'s landed an award and a book deal, there's been (a PR stunt? interest? a journalistic pack-story?) over her identity. The funniest part is the suggestion that it's Andrew Orlowski (this falls into the class of things which if they aren't true, should be :-)). The original suspect has denied it

After reading and hearing about all this, I did a little digging myself. Now, literary forensics is harder than it looks. It's the practice of determining authorship from quirks, styles, idiosyncrasies, etc. I've played around with it, and been wrong. My speculations, which again, might certainly be wrong:

1) The "Belle de Jour" blog is a fake, written by at least two people, one starting it, then another taking over later.

2) At least the second person, the one who took over, is a journalist.

I'm more certain of #1 than #2.

Here's why - look at the use of the singlequote character. As Don Foster claimed originally, there's a style of singlequote for phrases, doublequote for conversation. But, as I've found, in the first month archive, there are NO - none - zero - singlequote usages at all. Load the archive file http://belledejour-uk.blogspot.com/2003_10_01_belledejour-uk_archive.html into a text editor, and search for the two character sequence singlequote and space. Nothing in the text. Now repeat the search with the third month archive file http://belledejour-uk.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_belledejour-uk_archive.html. Many, many, such usages (e.g.: descriptors 'It Girl' and 'double-barrelled' apply).

Now, this is the sort of observation where someone can sneer - "Look, he's talking about a quotemark, how silly!". And it can be wrong, a writer might just have a new computer, or use a new composition procedure, or something similar. But fingerprints themselves are just smudges made by oily skin ridges, and have to be interpreted with care too.

I'm not sure if there's significance that some of the line break HTML has the sequence period-space-br-tag while others just period-br-tag (no space). That's not 100% consistent, very attackable, but also suggestive of two different origins (which could be either people or procedures, note!). Also sometimes the quoting of conversation is only in singlequotes.

But that "second" person's style sure looks journalistic. It's not that a call-girl can't be literate and write well. Rather, look at it this way - between a real prostitute imagining being a journalist, and a real journalist imagining being a prostitute, which sounds more likely? Which profession is better equipped to exploit the other?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
March 19, 2004

Bruce Taylor, Declan McCullagh, and "rotten little kids"

Today I attended the debate " New Media Forums and the First Amendment", featuring Bruce Taylor of the "Free Porn" department, err, Department of Justice, on one side, and Shari Steele of the EFF on the other. Aside from the deep issues of the debate, I was able to satisfy my curiosity regarding one little mystery involving Bruce Taylor (recounted with permission).

As a bit of free, unpaid, working-for-nothing, voice in the wilderness, reporting, I mean "citizen journalism", I checked with him if he had really said something a recent Declan McCullagh CNET article quoted him again as saying:

It's not personal. Taylor relishes the chance to clash with First Amendment lawyers. "Every year we'll put a bill in there, every other year, just to keep the ACLU in business," he told me a few years ago, talking about his efforts to lobby Congress. "They should send me Christmas presents instead of hate mail. I'm putting their rotten little kids through private school."

So, knowing Declan McCullagh, I asked Bruce Taylor if he had actually said it.

He responded that he hadn't said it about the ACLU, he had been joking with Declan about porn-site lawyers, and didn't mean civil-liberties lawyers. He had written a letter of apology to various ACLU lawyers explaining he hadn't meant what was reported. I asked if the letter was available. He said, without irony, that Declan had a copy, and then listed to which ACLU lawyers he had sent it (I decided not to pursue this). These events happened years ago, note (so even if the first use of the quote, at the time, could be pleaded to be honest error, the second use, now, is surely deliberate).

Frankly, this story made much more sense. Porn-site lawyers, e.g. those who represent Larry Flynt/"Hustler" personally, often do make good money. In contrast, civil-liberties lawyers, those who bring legal cases on principle, are typically very poorly paid. Bruce Taylor surely knows this (as does Declan McCullagh). Thus a putting-kids-through-private-school joke works far better about Larry Flynt's lawyers than ACLU's lawyers. So, especially given Declan, I thought Bruce Taylor's explanation had the ring of truth. Declan McCullagh's "journalism" modus operandi is to fabricate meanings more than words.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:35 PM | Followups
March 18, 2004

"Two-way" journalism and "Planet Of The Apes"

[Jay Rosen just wrote a long article focusing on "two-way" journalism. Against my better judgment, I wrote this comment in response]

"Journalism may be a lot more interesting once it gets interested in the benefits of going both ways."

Jay, can I ask a puzzled question, illustrating my very non-journalist perspective? Honestly, I think I'm missing something in grasping the worldview of this subculture (very foreign to me).

Does the average journalist - pre-blog, pre-Internet, pre-New-Era, pre-this-changes-everything - really ordinarily think no readers can have something to say? Something intelligent to say?

I read you. I read Jeff Jarvis. I read Dan Gillmor. Etc. I keep getting the image of a scene that would fit in the old Planet Of The Apes movie, where the sentient apes in a Council are expressing their astonishment at the existence of an intelligent human species:

"What manner of a creature is this? It talks! It expresses itself in coherent sentences! But it's still a reader. How can this be? We've never seen anything like it before. Does it do tricks? Can it be trained for more complex labor? Of course, whatever higher attributes it may have, it's still a dangerous beast. But maybe it can serve us better in the future if we carefully (always maintaining ultimate control) allow it to use more of its capabilities, at our direction."

In specific, I feel like I'm looking at an article by one of those chimpanzee factions who were in favor of the utility of the humans.

Am I wrong? Or has my long acquaintance with, e.g. the "work" of Declan McCullagh, given me a skewed perspective? (maybe that's the orangutan faction, which knows the truth, but suppresses it for their religious ends?)

Or, to turn it around completely, you're claiming yourself that journalism as a whole has *never* *before* cared what readers say? (which is the logical equivalent of your original statement!)

[Update: Jay Rosen responded, in comments:

Xian has part of the answer, Seth. Someone else who does is Tim Porter at First Draft. Follow the link to some of his better posts. My short answer is this: it's not that newspapers and journalists were uninterested in "readers" or had no contact with an alien species.

The rhetoric of "serving readers" was everywhere in the industry from the late 1980s on. The Reader was constantly invoked in journalism discussions, too, but this is different from having a lot of human contact with actual readers, listening to what they say, or dealing with what they write.

Prior to the Internet, metropolitan daily journalism was pretty insulated from readers and their complaints, let alone their ideas. You have to grasp how extreme this isolation could be. A team of journalists might work for weeks on a large story, and be pleased to get three or four letters and a couple of phone calls as their total reaction. The normal condition was to hear nothing from anybody after a story.

For hard data, there was market research that told something about readers; there was also the journalist's disdain for marketing (editing by the numbers), which led to fears of "caving in" to readers. That gaves you some sense of the factors that were operating... then.


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:07 AM | Comments (6) | Followups
March 09, 2004

Shorenstein, "Big Media" Meets the "Bloggers", and who wins

Given that I spent so much effort on the ability to make fair use of the Shorenstein Center report "Big Media" Meets the "Bloggers", I should use that ability myself for some commentary.

The strongest passage, which leapt out at me, is the conclusion, and he said it, not me (emphasis mine):

But if blogs offered "big media" a rich vein and a testing ground for potential story ideas, it in turn conferred legitimacy on the blogosphere, and provided the "bigger megaphones," as Atrios puts it, that the young medium needed to be heard. "Weblogs," Atrios observed, "still need the validation of print and television media--otherwise it's just a bunch of people ranting away on the Internet, which is nothing new."


"For the most part," Atrios maintains, "the influence of blogs is limited to the degree to which they have influence on the rest of the media. Except for the very top hit-getting sites, blogs need to be amplified by media with bigger megaphones."


Many in the press and in the blog world gave Marshall credit for "pushing the Lott story to the forefront," as one observer wrote, "with more vigor than any other online pundit."58 Atrios, too, was credited by some with being "nearly as influential" as Marshall in calling attention to what Lott had said.59 But Atrios himself argues that Glenn Reynolds played a key role in elevating the story out of the blogosphere and into the mainstream. "The truth is," Atrios maintains, "if Glenn Reynolds hadn't taken a stand on this story, then no one would have considered the role of bloggers in [it]. ... It isn't because Glenn was the first or the most vocal. Rather it was because he has a big megaphone and real media connections."

Now, this is of course coming from these people:

This case was written by Esther Scott for Alex Jones, Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, for use at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

So, considering the source, it must be noted they aren't going to produce a study hyping blog-triumphalism. But the observations are very useful to those who take "everyone's a journalist" too seriously (everyone's a journalist like everyone's a potential candidate for California Governor)

There's other great stuff, such as fascinating sections which show the psychology of "pack journalism":

O'Keefe remembers that an employee of another network "had one of their producers in their [Washington] bureau look at it and later came back and said, `No, I don't think it's anything.'" This gave O'Keefe some pause, causing him to second-guess his judgment. "I think there is something to the [notion] of pack journalism," he reflects, "of individuals believing that if something is noteworthy, ... everyone will get it. ... If they didn't all get it, then it couldn't possibly be a newsworthy item."

And the mechanics of reportorial sausage-making (emphasis mine):

O'Keefe quickly contacted Linda Douglass, ABC's congressional correspondent, who began making phone calls "to a lot of different interest groups and folks" to seek a response to what Lott had said. Douglass was "trolling for reaction," as O'Keefe puts it, which was standard journalistic practice when someone had made a possibly controversial statement. The press, Halperin notes, "is usually not in the business of saying, `Oh my God, this is outrageous,' but rather of asking someone else [to express an opinion]."

In other words, if you're a journalist, and you want to write "This is an outrage!", you don't come right out and write "This is an outrage!". Rather, you call around to the various groups you know, and see if you can "troll" someone to say it. So you can write, that in reaction to X's remark, Y said "This is an outrage!". There seems to be something wrong with a system where disguising the editorializing via a straw-mouthpiece is acceptable.

I'm reminded, to connect to a different story that has some parallels, that I've seen this as part of Declan McCullagh's technique in proselytizing Libertarianism. For example, where e.g. in the Al Gore Internet hit piece, he studiously avoided asking anyone who had actually been involved in technologically inventing the Internet, and got reactions only from right-wing and Libertarian-type flacks. No accident, he knew exactly what they would say.

Anyway, the whole report strikes me as an interesting view into the perspective of insiders as they work out how to place the new niche into the predator-prey-fodder foodchain.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:49 PM | Comments (4) | Followups
February 18, 2004

Google and stupid journalism tricks ("Lies, Damned Lies, and Google")

There's an interesting taking-to-task of lazy journalism in:

"Lies, Damned Lies, and Google"
with, sadly, a few error itself. First, some goofs:

What's more, as you might remember from December news reports, the phrase "miserable failure" for a while directed searchers to the White House home page, and "French military victories" brought up zero pages.

The "miserable failure" Google-bomb went primarily to the "Biography of President George W. Bush" page, not the White House home page. But a howler, the "french military victories" Google-bomb never returned zero pages.. The top page was a joke which claimed there were zero pages, and the punchline was the suggestion
"Did you mean: french military defeats"?

A deeper flaw which caught my eye, is that all throughout this article, many reporters don't seem to realize that a search for words without quotes, is significantly different from searching for words as a phrase, i.e. with quotes. Given several words, Google will rank highly the results with the words next to each other, returning them at the top of the list. This seem to have misled many people at to what they're doing. That is, searching hot dog is not the same as "hot dog". The former is roughly any page with the words "hot" and "dog" related to it, while the latter is the phrase "hot dog" (this is an approximate description).

So many of the number reported are utterly and completely meaningless. They don't even do the silly measure of the phrase the journalist thinks they measure. That is, the journalist might believe they are doing something tangentially related to frankfurters by searching for the phrase "hot dog" (neglecting use as e.g. a surfing term or different product). But in fact, they're searching for everything up to "It was a hot day, my dog was unhappy".

The Spokesman Review, in Spokane, Washington, confirms that the phrase "build backyard ice rink" yields 5,400 Google hits. ... If you're Canadian and stuck on the wrong side of the border without proper ID, don't worry, Google will save you, reports the Canada's Times Colonist; the phrase "permanent resident cards CA" will bring you to a "staggering" 92,200 sites on the subject.

NO. The phrases return zero or a few hits. The words return that many hits, but having lot of pages with the four words "permanent" "resident" "cards" "CA" somewhere on them, is not "staggering".

Sigh. Flash - journalists write nonsense. Not news at 11.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1) | Followups
February 11, 2004

Joe Trippi Quotes Me (almost) At ETech Q&A!

People say that I have more readers and influence than I know. Perhaps that's true. But be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. I just found out that Joe Trippi used some blog comments focused on me, as part of a story he told at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, during the "Digital Democracy Teach-In". I'm not mentioned by name there, and it's not harmful to me. So thankfully, this is not a case of my being flamed from on-high, with no way to reply. But I was very surprised to see how some months-ago remarks I wrote, had made their way into his Etech discuasion, and how they were presented.

[Update note 2/15: I initially transcribed this myself from the audio, so it differs slightly from the now-released official transcript]

At around 19:42 minutes (of the audio) into the Q&A session, discussing blogs and ideas, Joe Trippi says:

[There were so many different ideas ... such as] Larry Lessig letting the governor blog on his blog. The governor just wanted to learn, he literally wanted to get the living daylights kicked out of him, learning what blogging was really like, in the real world.

One of the coolest things that happened in that one was everybody wanted to know - his [Dean's] blog comments were thought to be so - how do I put this - inane, that they couldn't possibly be really him, that they might have been sort of autobots. And I came on the blog, on Lessig's blog, and immediately said, like

"I know you guys think this, but if you thought that these were being ghost-written, don't you think we'd do, I'd do, a better job of it?"

[audience laughter]

And I can't remember who, I think it was David Weinberger or somebody, basically wrote this all up on the JOHO blog, and said

"This is one of the most authentic moments in American politics on the web"

Because when you look at that exchange on the Lessig blog, it's *clear* that this is really Howard dean, and it really is his campaign manager, who else - who would manufacture this sort of blow-by-blow?

Now, Joe Trippi is not the first politician, or even the first person, to tell a story where he makes himself sound more heroic than circumstances warranted (Who would manufacture this sort of blow-by-blow? What a straight-line! :-)). But since his comment on the Lessig blog specifically addressed me by name, and that exchange was much in reference to me, I recall what really happened - and in fact was able to locate the actual blow-by-blow. It's entry #1363 on Lessig's blog:


Short version - what I really said was:

Earlier, I wondered if a staffer would be ghost-writing the entries.

Now I'm wondering if the entries are auto-posted by a script.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on Jul 15 03 at 8:48 PM

AND IT WAS A JOKE!. I was saying exactly what Joe Trippi gives as his zinger - that a ghost-writer would have done a better job with writing articles. And moreover, while some people didn't get the joke, other commenters did get it:

Jonathan: Seth is (quite humerously IMHO), saying that Dean's arguments have, thus far, been so elementary that they could have been posted by an artificially intelligent script.

I don't think (now) that anyone doubts that it is truly Dr. Dean who is posting.

posted by jt on Jul 15 03 at 9:13 PM [jt != Joe Trippi, it's someone else]

THEN, afterwards, around forty minutes later, is when Joe Trippi chimes in:

Seth ? can I ask you something ? don't you think that if we were ghostwriting this stuff we would have come up with something better than that? I mean seriously if that post doesn't prove Howard Dean himself is posting ? I don't know what will cut through your doubts.

[rest of comment snipped]

posted by Joe Trippi on Jul 15 03 at 10:01 PM

Now, I don't fault him for wanting to make an "official" statement, given the comments. But turning this into a story where he sets everybody straight with humor - that's complete fiction. Again, NOBODY, NOBODY, was truly thinking the posts "might have been sort of autobots". That's a kind of slang for what, in pundit-ese, might be termed "a scripted performance" (i.e. whether script as in theater, or script as in computer program, the result is the same).

And this is what David Weinberger wrote at the time on the JOHO blog


In response to a comment questioning, in an unnecessarily nasty tone, whether Gov. Dean was the actual author of the posts at the Lessig blog, Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, wrote:

Seth - can I ask you something - don't you think that if we were ghostwriting this stuff we would have come up with something better than that?

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the entire Wed summed up in one line. Take it in the micro sense and you have the Web's Theory of Authenticity with its corollary that Imperfection Is a Virtue. Take it to the macro and you get the Messy Network Axiom with its corollary that Efficiency is the Enemy of Truth.

Umm ... What? No, don't explain, it's possible, but it's not worth it. Much more important is that this latter comment proceeds from a false premise, from Joe Trippi's supposed zing. I wasn't questioning, at that point, whether Gov. Dean was the actual author of the posts. Rather, then, I was humorously saying they were vacuous, playing off earlier authorship doubts for the joke (whether in an unnecessarily nasty tone, I won't comment).

Oh, the irony, of thinking
"This is one of the most authentic moments in American politics on the web"!

First my point is misconstrued. Then it's pundit-fodder. Then the whole story is spun to make the campaign a hero, against the confused and ignorant public. And almost nobody will ever hear differently, because of power-laws and marginalization.


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:23 AM | Comments (3)
January 27, 2004

"Howard Dean's 'smart ID' plan", and Declan McCullagh's "journalism"

Declan McCullagh's "journalism" sometimes resembles this old Bloom County cartoon:

[Scene: Declan McCullagh, err Milo Bloom, at reporter's desk in newsroom, on telephone]

Milo: Senator? This is Milo Bloom at the BEACON. Will you confirm that you sunk Jimmy Hoffa in your backyard pond?

Bedfellow: What? Of course not!
Milo: Fine. I'll go with "Sen. Bedfellow denies that pond is where he sunk Hoffa."

Bedfellow: That's NOT TRUE!
Milo: Okay. "Bedfellow DID sink Hoffa in pond".

Bedfellow: I DON'T KNOW where Hoffa is!!
Milo: "'I lost the body' says Bedfellow."

So, we have an article on how Senator Bedfellow sunk Jimmy Hoffa in the backyard pond, I mean, err:

Howard Dean's 'smart ID' plan

Let me just collect some resources:

Howard Dean's actual old speech
(no quotes, just read it to be informed - and interestingly, Declan does not give a link to it)

Andrew Orlowski - Who told Dean to scream for lock-down, TCPA computing?
"So it's worth parsing what Dean really said, and on what basis McCullagh formed his stentorian, five cigar conclusion, before we can judge either party."

Ed Felten / Freedom To Tinker: Dean's Smart-Card Speech
"At bottom, what we have here is a mistake by Dean, in deciding to give a speech recommending specific technical steps whose consequences he didn't fully understand. That's not good. But on the scale of campaign gaffes, this one seems pretty minor."

Dana Blankenhorn - Wrong Time For A Cheap Shot
"Declan McCullagh picked the wrong time -- the day before an important primary -- to deliver a cheap shot at Howard Dean."

Etc. Everyone can run around playing catch-up. But the damage is done. Not (yet?) at the Al Gore "invented the Internet" level, but instructive all the same.

Personal note: Perhaps, from this if nothing else, some people will understand why I worry about a journalistic hatch-job on me for any legally-risky free-speech work I might do.

Update: Wow (he said it, I didn't!):

Dana Blankenhorn - Orlowski Nails McCullagh's Butt To The Flagpole
"I hereby call out Declan McCullagh. You are no longer a journalist, sir. You are a lying troll."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:40 PM | Comments (2) | Followups
January 05, 2004

USA Today, blogs, and journalism irony

I was tempted to write something about the recent USA Today blog article: "Freewheeling 'bloggers' are rewriting rules of journalism", which has much bubble bibble in it:

But the biggest raves come from bloggers who have found a voice they never had before. Tom Bevan, a former advertising executive, turned to full-time blogging after a Web site he helped found, RealClearPolitics.com, took off. Bevan, 34, has no experience in politics or journalism. But he says he knows from the feedback that "a lot of influential opinion-makers" are benefiting from his views.

"That's one of the fantastic things about the blogosphere and the Internet," Bevan says. "If you have something to say that's interesting, you will eventually be heard."

[Ouch. "But the biggest praise of the lottery come from winners who have found wealth they never had before ... if you work hard, you will eventually succeed"]

But why bother? Fortunately, I stumbled across Anil Dash (Vice President of Business Development for a big blogging company) rebutting with great authority (emphasis mine):

It may just be that we're all more jaded overall. The other day, there was a story on the cover of USA Today regarding weblogs, and it even had a quote from Ben. I suspect that a year ago, I'd have been jumping up and down with excitement, thinking about what great recognition that sort of press coverage represents. But I barely skimmed the article yesterday, noted a bunch of annoying inaccuracies, and bookmarked it for the future. I know that the grand theory of weblogs is that I could have Fact-Checked Their Asses ™ but who cares? USA Today readers aren't going to stumble across my site and find the true facts, the newspaper isn't going to run a correction based on my blog post, and my readers already know the details of how weblogs work.

[Oh, the irony]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:52 AM | Followups
December 26, 2003

Paul Krugman on what no self-respecting journalist would repeat on Gore

There was an unexpectedly high amount of traffic to my website today, going to the page on Al Gore "invented the Internet". A small but notable blip. It seems the source was the remark in a NYTimes Paul Krugman column:

If a reporter must use anecdotes, they'd better be true. After the Dean endorsement, innumerable reporters cracked jokes about Al Gore's inventing the Internet. Guys, he never said that: it's a malicious distortion of a true statement, and no self-respecting journalist would repeat it.

He said it, I didn't :-). So I took a look what's repeated in the official Declan McCullagh biography:

"[Declan] McCullagh was the first journalist to question Vice President Gore's claim to have created the Internet ...

I suppose that's a slight improvement from the much earlier version, which read

... the first to question Vice President Gore's claim to have invented the Internet ...

I don't think the problem is quite about "self-respecting". A more accurate phrase might be "truth-respecting" (so many examples ...)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:20 PM | Followups
December 08, 2003

Declan McCullagh, "call off the dogs", says Lessig

Deep down at the very end of the Lessig blog's discussion about the "the classic Declan" item (falsely characterizing him as favoring "ending anonymity"), Lessig himself makes a comment I found extremely interesting:

But this is all taking the wrong tone. Declan and I have had fun arguing since 1996. He jabs when he can; I when I can. He's plays well, even if sometimes fast and a bit loose. But I did entrust him with my job (in the spam bet) and I'm sure I'd trust him with something more sometime again. The only real point of all this is to say: whatever sensible strategy just now is to protect and extend privacy, I am not advocating the elimination of anonymity. So call of the dogs.

My view is that Declan "plays" in a kind of Beltway-pundit way. I once parodied it along the lines of the Barney Song ("I Love you. You love me. We're a happy family.") as:

I backstab you; you backstab me.
We're in politics in DC.

(I have more to the parody song, but I probably shouldn't post it)

But this really did seem to be his outlook. Like war is the sport of kings, lies are the sport of journalists.

I suppose this works if you can turn off the computer and go out for drinks, nobody really gets hurt. And maybe it's all even good for everyone, in terms of playing to their cheering sections. But if Declan decides that people facing lawsuits are a sandbox for him to play in, well, it's all fun and games until someone goes to jail - and that's not going to be Declan.

Sigh. Oh yeah, I got a blog! ("I'm a Insignificant Microbe in the TTLB Ecosystem")
[Update: Apparently the database hadn't yet fully ranked me when I looked - my true status is in fact ... Multicellular Microorganism ]
[Update2: Thanks to anonymous for telling me, my latest ranking ... Flippery Fish!]
[Update3: Broke into the ranks of Crawly Amphibian! But I think i've hit my ceiling]
[Update4: Back down to Flippery Fish. Yup, that looks to be my final approximate status.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:01 PM | Comments (3) | Followups
December 05, 2003

Declan McCullagh "simply made up what I said" - Lessig

Declan McCullagh gets a very strong condemnation today from Lessig.

I just submitted this to GrepLaw:

Lawrence Lessig has a long blog posting "the classic Declan", where he writes about being falsely characterized as favoring "ending anonymity."

"For Declan's statement has no relation to anything the article actually says. Read on if you'd like the proof, but the bottom line yet again: Declan is a brilliant writer, and excellent pundit. But he is more a bomb thrower than a careful reader. His readers should keep this in mind."

It's good that Lessig has the journalistic power to defend himself. I sure wouldn't be able to reach anywhere near a comparable audience (to either of them!) if Declan were to smear me.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
November 24, 2003

Boston Globe Google article, and blog peasants without cake

Dave Winer has a good account of being distorted in meaning for a Boston Globe article on Google. Derek Powazek concurs on extensive misportrayal ("Just for the record, I do not hate Google, nor am I its enemy."). But then Dave makes a comment which is an excellent example of something where the blog-hype is simply, thoroughly, wrong:

It's a new world ladies and gentlemen. In the old days, the BigPubs would put words in your mouth, and what could you do? Today each of us have a platform to tell our own story, so when they screw it up, we can run a correction, immediately.

When misquoted by any agenda-driven journalist, "we" have to suffer that asshole. Dave Winer, A-list, Harvard Berkman Fellow, President of Userland Software Inc, has a platform to tell his own story. J. Random Blogger would do better standing outside a subway station with a picket sign to tell their own story for themselves (ie., not counting attracting the support of some other journalist).

The numbers are stark. The Boston Globe circulation is "a daily circulation of 474,845 and a Sunday circulation of 704,926". Let's look at that number - 474,845. HALF A MILLION, roughly. Very, very, few bloggers have a readership which can oppose that.

This is simple mathematics. Note any calling me a name, "negative" or "cynical" or some such, does not change the numbers. On the one hand, HALF A MILLION readers. On the other hand, what, for the ordinary person, a handful of family, friends, and a few random fans?

In fact, I shouldn't write this post, from a strictly rational viewpoint. Because if I get slammed from a BigBlog, my ability to effectively reply is nil.

It's great that a few people can meaningfully take on journalists. It really is, good for them. But statements such as the above "new world" are downright cruel to peasants who do not have cake to eat.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:12 PM | Comments (3) | Followups
November 18, 2003

N2H2, PR, and lying with statistics, CNN example

I recently discovered that censorware company N2H2's press release about hyped web sex site statistics, which I dissected in a series of posts a while back, was even in a CNN show:

Reliable stats are hard to come by. The number of commercial porn Web pages soared 18-fold over four years, according to the Internet filtering firm, N2H2, 260 million pages of porn. Another filter company estimates that 12 percent of all Web sites are porn sites.

Now, remember, this is CNN. It's Old Media. How does one counteract it?

Ah, but I have a BLOG! Feel my mighty blogging press-reach. Thrill to the vast audience which hangs on my every word, as I masterfully point out that the Web itself has grown by a huge amount over the years, so the proportion of "commercial porn Web pages" may not have changed at all. Experience the disintermediated media-power of emergent user pundocracy.

Or are those crickets I hear?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1) | Followups
October 17, 2003

Peter Jacobs (SunnComm DMCA bullies) - the saga continues

In a serendipitous follow-up to my last post about No Sympathy For The Devil - SunnComm's Peter Jacobs v. Alex Halderman, there's a letter by Peter Jacobs running right now in The Register

SunnComm CEO demands to be called a 'laughing stock'

I'm feeling a bit fisky:

[Begin Peter Jacobs letter - my comments in brackets]

Subject: In Britain...

does one re-write stories from other writers without talking to the principals?

[Sure! In Britain and everywhere else. It's the "echo chamber" at work. Running with the pack is always easy and safe.]

MediaMax under widespread ridicule? I think not.

[Almost no-one is going to understand what he's saying here, so he comes off like a raving lunatic. He means he doesn't consider Alex Halderman's paper to have valid conclusions. He keeps saying that, per next sentence, but nobody cares.]

You obviously didn't understand that Mr. Halderman discovered NOTHING except how to draw the press to him like a magnet.

[Umm, then why were you threatening him with DMCA charges, felony? Obviously he discovered something!]

Here's yesterday's BOSTON GLOBE article which you might consider using as a roadmap to help navigate the bandwagon you jumped on.

Boston Globe story

[I suppose that was worth a try, as a tactic. But it's hard to change the direction of the pack by pointing out a stray. Maybe he needs a blog ... ]


Peter H. Jacobs
Chief Executive Officer

[End Peter Jacobs letter]

Then The Register writer goes on to say:

For the record, we did call SunnComm for comment, but the PR specialist on the phone did not make Jacobs available.

That matter aside, we turn to Jacobs' recommended "roadmap" for reporting. The SunnComm CEO objected to our use of the phrase "widespread ridicule" to describe how hundreds of stories had lambasted his company's DRM technology. So how does the "roadmap" describe the situation?

"SunnComm became an Internet laughingstock, and the enraged CEO, Peter Jacobs, threatened to sue Halderman for spreading false information about MediaMax. He even suggested the possibility of prosecuting Halderman under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, an absurd statute that forbids attempts to bypass antipiracy systems," the roadmap writes.

Sorry for being so harsh, Peter, next time we'll call you a laughingstock as well.

Be sure to read the roadmap in full. We think you'll find it's a bit of Apples to squirrels comparison of DRM technologies.

[Ba-da-boom! Peter Jacobs isn't going to get the story told his way in this column.]

Again, it's a little like watching a tyrant get torn apart by a wild-dog pack, which he wanted to 'sic' on a villager. It's not that one approves of wild-dog packs. But I have no sympathy for his plaints of mistreatment given how he wanted to ruin Halderman's life with legal action.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:33 AM | Followups
October 05, 2003

Blogs, Journalism, and Mathematics

The fallacy of "blogging == journalism revolution" has been on my mind today, from BloggerCon. I've figured out the key reasoning error:

People assume production is the same as audience

This is wrong. This is false. This is an unwarranted leap of logic ("then a miracle occurs") that has very little to recommend it, and much to argue against it.

A recent blog survey, "The Blogging Iceberg", has a good paragraph on this:

Nanoaudiences are the logical outcome of continued growth in blogs. Assume for a moment that one day 100 million people regularly read blogs and that they each read 50 other peoples' blogs. That translates into 5 billion subscriptions (50 * 100 million). Now assume on that same day there are 20 million active bloggers. That translates into 250 readers per blog (5 billion / 20 million) - far smaller audiences than any traditional one-to-many communication method. And this is just an average; in practice many blogs have no more than two dozen readers.

Everyone can't have an audience of millions. That's a simple mathematical fact.

So, what's the result of traditional media + blogs? Are the media which does have an audience of millions going to just go away? Why would that happen?

There's a reasoning disconnect, from a very idealist dream, of everyone reading and writing to each other (on an assumed equal or at least meritocracy basis), to the practical constraint that it can't happen in implementation. Because everything from economies of scale to clustering tendencies ("power laws") is going to produce a relatively few large-audience outlets, and everything else is noise.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Followups
September 28, 2003

N2H2 "State Secrets" - PR and lying with statistics - press note

[I'll get to part 2, really, it's just turning out to be far more difficult to write-up than I thought, because of my misery regarding the whole topic]

I've just noticed, part of the extensive reach of the N2H2 "1,800 Percent Increase [in porn]" press release is because it was portrayed as a "news story" ("Story from AFP") by a syndicate Agence France-Presse. This made it even ABC Sci-Tech News.

The power of the press :-( ...

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Followups
September 12, 2003

Bruce Schneier, "license to surf", and context

It's time to play the game of "journo-phone" again. There's a somewhat amusing, though somewhat serious, AP article: Should License Be Required to Go Online? (though I like Wired's title for it, Are You Too Stupid to Surf?). In the article, after briefly mentioning virus problems, ID fraud, and filesharing, the question is posed (by the writer):

So why not institute mandatory education before people can go online? After all, motorists must obtain licenses before they can legally hit the road, and computers are much more complicated.

And then a quote is given:

"It could be a four-year college degree, a one-month course. It might be a good idea," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer for Counterpane Internet Security Inc.

Or it might be a bad idea.

"The downside is everybody you know won't be able to have a computer anymore, and I like being able to send e-mail to friends," Schneier said.

The article goes on from there, quoting pros, cons, and someone somewhere who takes the ludicrous idea seriously.

Reading the context, it's obvious Bruce Schneider was asked something along the lines of "Could there be an ``Internet license''? What would it entail?". And he replied nicely, indeed, there could, anything from four years to one month. And I'm sure that the "It might be a good idea" part was said with the tongue-in-cheek feeling of old-timers (especially strong after another Microsoft virus infestation). Note the next sentence about "everybody you know".

Now we play "journo-phone", where it's posted to Slashdot, as:

NaugaHunter writes "A story on Yahoo asks Should [a] License Be Required to Go Online? It appears to be suggested by Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer for Counterpane Internet Security Inc. 'It could be a four-year college degree, a one-month course. It might be a good idea.' The story also details efforts of some schools from simple orientation to threats of fines for spreading viruses, and questions exactly who would be responsible for keeping track of who is and isn't licensed."

So 250,000+ people hear "It appears to be suggested by Bruce Schneier". No such thing happened. Poor Bruce Schneier. He'll survive. But the amount of grief he'll get over this silliness will be wearisome.

Oh, who posted the story? (though admittedly not writing the above) It's a small world: Michael Sims. People think I'm being unreasonable when I talk about the following. But he won't even be doing something unusual (for him or for Slashdot) if he abuses his power and Slashdot position to smear me over censorware work.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
September 02, 2003

Ian Clarke GrepLaw interview, and leaving America follow-up

Greplaw has an interview with Ian Clarke where he discusses many things, including his comment about leaving America ("it was an off-the-cuff remark ... and it was taken out of context"). Though he is still leaving. I actually did write him about this issue earlier, as I debated last month, and he gave me permission to post his reply. Frankly, at the time, I decided not to go ahead and post, because I just didn't want to get-into-it so deeply. Not after the negatives of being trashed by John Gilmore on the front page of Lessig's blog, from my calling the "Suspected Terrorist" stunt "a millionaire's version of trolling". The point here being that there was no way I could gain by opposing the sensationalism. Very sadly, the hypsters could just slam me, and I wouldn't be able to fight back. But now that Greplaw has it in the story, there's probably (probably ...) no harm in my posting. So see below.

Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2003 20:41:50 -0700
From: Ian Clarke
To: Seth Finkelstein
Subject: Re: America

Yes, and I am afraid not :-)

Unfortunately the publicity around my departure is somewhat misleading, although this is partially my own fault. I never wanted or expected the slashdot comment which started this to be widely publicized, I didn't even expect people to attribute it directly to me (yeah yeah - should have posted as an AC), and I certainly didn't want my departure to attract such attention.

It was irresponsible for some people to describe that paragraph as an "announcement" - when it was actually an off-the-cuff /. post buried deep within a heated debate (the original culprit was infoanarchy.org).

While it is true that I am concerned about the political direction of this country, and extremely concerned about the way this country seems to treat non-Citizens as being less than human, there are other reasons for my departure too, including the cost and limitations involved in maintaining my work visa, and the fact that most of my revenue these days is coming from the EU anyway meaning that there is little business reason for me to remain here.

There is also the concern that Intellectual Property law is enforced much more broadly here than in other places, and with less concern for the "little guy" - which could make me vulnerable should one of my current or future P2P-related projects upset the RIAA or MPAA.

So I am grateful and flattered that you might seek to persuade me not to leave, but my mind is made up - and despite the sensationalist publicity - it isn't all John Ashcroft's fault ;-) I like America, if not its current government, but it just doesn't make sense for me to stay here - perhaps I will return one day.

All the best,


On Thu, Aug 14, 2003 at 11:28:38PM -0400, Seth Finkelstein wrote:
> Ian, are you serious about "leaving America"? Would you
> be open to any counter-thoughts from me on the matter?
> --
> Seth Finkelstein Consulting Programmer sethf@sethf.com http://sethf.com

Ian Clarke ian@locut.us
Coordinator, The Freenet Project http://freenetproject.org/
Weblog http://slashdot.org/~sanity/journal

[Additional note]

On Sat, Aug 16, 2003 at 05:58:03PM -0400, Seth Finkelstein wrote:
> OK, understood. Can I publicize/circulate the below, as an
> antidote to some of the sensationalism?



Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
August 30, 2003

Slashdot Elect

I can always tell when Michael Sims (one of Slashdot's "editors", in spite of being the domain-hijacker of Censorware Project) has done something abusive. This is not due to ESP, or a mystical connection (though he'd certainly claim my knowledge is proof of some malignant aspect). Rather, it's a "push" effect as opposed to a "pull" effect - the knowledge comes to me, rather than my having to seek it out. Behind the magic, it's simple. I get many referred hits to my website whenever he throws a temper-tantrum on Slashdot. So I know something's up.

In this case, on Thursday, for five stories he posted, Michael Sims made their tags lines a completely irrelevant attack on the broadband company "Speakeasy". It seems he was having a service dispute with them. Thus the obvious course of action, if you've got journalistic power to abuse, is to make the front page of Slashdot a forum for ranting about it as a prelude to other stories. One posting by user "LittleLebowskiUrbanA" summarized it all:

Text of an email I sent to Speakeasy:

These comments are taken off of the front page of www.slashdot.org and were made by michael@slashdot.org This seems to be very bad publicity for your company. Will you be posting a response? You may want to have your public relations dept take a look at this website and these comments.

(in order)

> *from the speakeasy-dsl-sucks dept.*

> *from the speakeasy-has-spent-two-weeks-without-placing-my-order dept.*

> *from the i-thought-premium-price-meant-premium-service dept.*

> *from the not-in-speakeasy's-case-certainly dept.*

*from the even-writing-to-speakeasy's-ceo-gets-no-results dept.*

Apparently Slashdot didn't care. It's hardly a big issue overall. Maybe they even think such whining on the front page is good for their street-cred.

People just don't get it when I talk about why the journalistic abusiveness is such a problem for legally risky anti-censorware work. I say over and over, Michael Sims held hostage then hijacked Censorware Project, and still has Slashdot's de facto support. I have essentially no power and have to worry about being sued, with the prospect of smear-attacks from Slashdot!

It's not sustainable.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:32 PM | Comments (2) | Followups
August 11, 2003

Mike Hawash, and Ian Clarke leaving America

Just after I wrote about Mike Hawash, and thought about "the heat I would have taken back then, if I'd have said that I thought he was in fact guilty", comes the following item from Cory Doctorow at boingboing.net (via Greplaw story):

Ian Clarke has decided -- in the wake of Mike Hawash being railroaded into copping a "terrorism" plea for donating money to the wrong nonprofit -- that he must leave the US. I share his frustration and his anxiety. Sure, we're both white, educated technical immigrants, and thus relatively well-insulated from the excesses of the US's new immigration scapegoating, but every time I hear a story about a fellow immigrant to the US being terrorized by the immigration system, I get my own case of horrors.

[Ian Clarke does the FreeNet Project, an anti-censorship system]

Oh lord. I have to remind myself: Keep my mouth shut! Remember: Success == SIMPLE, POPULAR, DEMAGOGUERY. While not everyone arrested is guilty as charged, neither is everyone charged an innocent victim of abuse of power. I always worry about becoming a right-winger in my old age, and I sound like a cranky conservative to myself (in reacting to "railroaded"??? "donating money to the wrong nonprofit"???). I can just see how much flaming I'd get if I went around posting that Hawash is guilty, and this is not an instance of government abuse of power (especially if I had done that before his plea).

Maybe I'd convince some people. And maybe I'd get myself trashed from boingboing.net (and golly gee, I could post a comment to defend myself). It's not worth it.

Maybe I'll try to talk to Ian Clarke privately, to convince him that things are not nearly as bad as he might fear - at least along the lines of being arrested for terrorist activities. We're on reasonable terms, and he's publicly said some supportive things against Michael Sims domain-hijacking Censorware Project. Or maybe I'll just skip it all, as another I-can't-win situation.

Update 9/2 : For more information, see Ian Clarke GrepLaw interview, and leaving America follow-up

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:57 PM | Followups
August 08, 2003

Journalistic Levels of Power

In trying to explain to someone my problems regarding journalistic levels of power, I ended up making the following chart. I decided to put it below, since it's instructive.

The following are roughly, what I estimate some daily readerships to be, in terms of order-of-magnitude numbers:


Level Audience Site
5 100,000 Slashdot (actually more like 250,000)
4 10,000 Front page of Lessig blog
3 1,000 Greplaw
2 100 Seth Finkelstein blog (being extremely generous!)
1 10 New LiveJournal/Blogspot/Blogger/etc. site
0 1 My name is Joe-419 of the Republic of Spam...

If one looks at the number of comments for an article, and it's clear that, on average, it tracks the hierarchy here (though there are some exceptions).

This illuminates what I was talking about earlier, mathematically, So, for example, Lawrence Lessig and Declan McCullagh can "feud", as they're on roughly the same journalistic power levels, despite vast differences in intellectual power levels.

But in terms of being way underpowered/overmatched - I'm down around level 2. Playing in leagues two levels greater than my own (or more!) is just going to lead me to grief.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:57 PM | Comments (2) | Followups
August 07, 2003

The "RSS Wars" and journalism

Tim Bray has some extremely interesting comments on the recent "RSS Wars" story:

Today c|net published some red-hot coverage (well, the news was months old, but whatever) of the RSS/Pie/Echo/Atom dynamics. The story genially ignored all the technical issues and focused on a thinly-documented tale of internecine infighting. But it was well-written and, I must admit, came out pretty readable. ...

[The reporter] called preparing for this story, and actively tried to get me to say something bad about Dave. By my count, on three occasions in a less-than-half-hour interview. ...

So pretty clearly what happened was, somebody told him about the nasty stuff, and he called everyone and nobody would go on the record about personality issues (surprise, surprise), and so had to write the story quoting weeks-old blog pickings.

Said Dave has a dissection of his own, e.g.:

Did you see the News.Com article? Pretty horrible. They are good at the fight-prolonging thing.

I find it instructive to observe this rebuttal ability and process.

I've already said the following in a few places, so I suppose I can't get in trouble for saying it again (famous last words...): The "RSS Wars" aren't about personalities, they're about visions.

Following my resolution of keep-my-mouth-shut, I'll say no more (especially about the RSS Wars themselves!).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Followups
May 25, 2003

"Evil Journalist" rules and program names

People who haven't seen the Evil Overlord List, should read it. It's full of practical advice on do's and dont's for aspiring Evil Overlords. As in, e,g.:

29. I will dress in bright and cheery colors, and so throw my enemies into confusion.

I have my own "Evil Journalist" rules (but from the standpoint of dealing with them, not trying to be one of them, even in jest). One of the rules is:

If I ever release a program which might be legal trouble, I will not name it anything with "-HACK" or "-CRACK" in the name. These look bad on court papers. Instead, I will name it something which sounds good in the press.

I'm not intending to write it, but I was just musing on "Investi-Gator" as a Gator reverse-engineering program name.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
May 15, 2003

"Klingon Language Interpreter" - PRAISE

[Posted with permission. Thanks!]


I just wanted to thank you for bothering to read the original Klingon interpreter story. I was appalled when I saw the AP version that went out over the wires. You were right on in your remarks. Thanks again.

Steve Woodward
The Oregonian
E-mail: stevewoodward[at-sign]news.oregonian.com

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:09 PM | Followups
May 14, 2003

"Klingon Language Interpreter" on snopes.com site

[ snopes.com is the "Urban Legends Reference Pages" site]

Klingon Interpreter

Claim: An Oregon county health services department hired a Klingon interpreter to assist psychiatric patients who would speak no other language.

Status: False.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:16 PM | Followups
May 13, 2003

"Klingon Language Interpreter" Press Release

[This is the full text of the press release about the so-called "Klingon Language Interpreter". It doesn't appear to be available anywhere else on the Web, and only snippets have been reported in the press. The following was mailed to me directly]


May 12, 2003

Contact: Becca Uherbelau, Multnomah County Chair's Office 503-988-5273

Klingon Interpreter Services Removed From List

Recent media attention on Multnomah County RFPQ (Request for Programmatic Qualifications) RO37745 for translator and interpreter services requires clarification.

There is no cost to the county and no contractors are selected or paid through this RFPQ. "Not a penny of public money has been or will be spent on Klingon translation. I have issued an addendum to the RFPQ that officially removes it from the list of languages for county translation services effective immediately," states Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn.

"Certainly, the idea that Klingon is on a list of languages that our safety net services might have to translate sounds absurd and about as far out as you can get. It was a mistake and a result of an overzealous attempt to ensure that our safety net systems can respond to all customers and clients," states Diane Linn, Multnomah County Chair.

The county deals with a wide range of clients with severe mental health issues including manic depression, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and delusions. It is our legal responsibility to respond with all resources and means necessary to communicate with clients.

The intent of the RFPQ is to standardize rates and the rules of service delivery for language services across the county. Additionally, the target of the RFPQ process is to develop a more comprehensive, cost effective approach to providing required and valuable translation services to clients in need. The end result is a list of qualified providers available to all county agencies, including languages spoken by a small number of potential clients.

Over 50 languages are included in the RFPQ. The county's responsibility is to provide the best possible care to the people who seek our help, particularly in the midst of a mental health or health crisis, whatever the language they speak.

"While this may sound like a quirky, peripheral issue, I would like people to take a moment to think about the kinds of things we are confronted with when we must help those who are mentally ill. The problems faced by those with mental illness are no joke, especially when they pose a threat to themselves or others. And what I hope people understand is that thanks to state budget cuts, we have little ability to help the severely mentally ill in any language. That is why we are working so hard to pass Measure 26-48," added Linn.

# # #

Public Affairs Office
501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., #600
Portland, Oregon 97214
503-988-6800 phone
503-988-6801 fax

News Release

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
May 12, 2003

"Klingon Language Interpreter" Urban Legend

See my debunking of the now-spawning
"Klingon Language Interpreter" Urban Legend:

The front page of kuro5hin.org is not a bad place. But it doesn't have anything near the power of the Mighty Media Echo Chamber (and this blog has even less ...)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:14 PM | Followups
May 09, 2003

Slashdot Reflect

So, my site got a burst of activity yesterday generated from referers from Slashdot. Was it some hard-earned credit from my extensive activism work? No ...

It turned out that Michael Sims, Slashdot "editor", had thrown a tiny temper-tantrum on Slashdot's front page, posting an article about Microsoft full of ranting e.g.
"You have seen the stupid Passport hole in an earlier story; also the iLoo, although that hasn't stopped you from submitting stories about it, oh no.".

How does this suddenly result in many hits on my site? Well, "FortKnox", a popular and prolific commenter, took Michael to task in a comment, for editorial conduct "Childish... just pathetic"". Which then generated a thread with enough references to Michael Sims' domain-hijacking so that there was spike in traffic to me.

Frankly, this all impresses me - and scares me - on many levels. It's easy to dismiss as merely pointless flaming. But no, I believe there's a great deal to ponder here. Initially, there's the humbling fact of how much comparative traffic it generated. That is, even a fairly minor critical thread is order-of-magnitude comparable to my site-readership.

More troubling, though, is someone's comment of:

I see references to Seth Finkelstein appearing already. With any Michael thread this is no surprise. I don't know who was right or who was wrong, but I do know that it has no bearing on Digital Rights Management. It's a private spat, let it stay that way. Taco clearly feels confident in Michael Sims and frankly, it's Taco's call.

There's one of the activism-problems for me, in a nutshell - "Taco clearly feels confident in Michael Sims ..." (Taco's in charge of Slashdot). Bennett Haselton has said "The only legitimacy that Michael has is through his position as a Slashdot writer ...", and it's true. Jonathan Wallace lamented "If the ACLU's webmaster had trashed the organization's site, I think everyone would pretty well recognize he was a Bad Character and Not To Be Trusted.".

But Slashdot keeps up Michael's reputation, and so his massive destructiveness, no matter how much it's denounced, has no consequences. Now, people tend to tune-out here, complaining about whining, but this is profound.

If Michael Sims goes a bit nutty about Microsoft and unappreciative readers, that hardly matters much per se, But it's part of a pattern of abusiveness, where he's overall given carte-blanche to make accusations on the front page of Slashdot, and the worst thing that seems to happen is it later might be changed. That's the power of journalism.

People do not understand my deep desire not to do legally-risk activism work in the face of journalistic invulnerability used with malice aforethought. If I get sued, I don't want to be fighting a hatchet-job posted the front-page of Slashdot (nor elsewhere, but that's another article). And that just doesn't get across. It's so monstrous, so contrary to mental models of reasonableness, that it's not credited.

To me, every element of my concern is backed-up with solid evidence. Michael Sims stole the Censorware Project domain (search for "flipping out on us", and I didn't write that!), broke legal trust placed in him with sensitive information about my censorware decryptions, and more. Yet he remains backed by Slashdot, and regularly rants and attacks from their front-page. It's no stretch at all that he'd do me ill there if he had the opportunity. After all, he's already done everything from hijacking an organization's domain, to breaching legal confidences, it happened.

It's not a "private spat", when I have extreme legal liability as my downside and the opposing downside is ... what? ... a few comments in a discussion-thread???

It's not worth it.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:44 AM | Followups
April 16, 2003

"Googlewashed" as a concept

I've been thinking about Andrew Orlowski's article on "Googlewashed" (the fact that it mentions me is not a coincidence, but not the main factor :-))

Aside from the specifics of the story, it seems to me there's something very subtle going on here.

Which means that Google is being "gamed" - and the language perverted - by what in statistical terms in an extremely small fraction indeed.

Hmm, an extremely small fraction of people who influence meaning, sometimes not for the better, for perhaps insular and pack-style conceptions - now, where have I hear this before - journalists!

I don't mean that too sarcastically. The subtle factor is that all of classic media analysis seems importable to blogs + Google. That's interesting.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Followups
April 02, 2003

Confused Alex Beam column pro library censorware

Gary Price at The ResourceShelf blog pointed me to a pro-library-censorware column by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam:
"Web filters at libraries are overdue"

It's a somewhat confused piece, perhaps notably so in conclusion:

I know where I stand on this. I'm behind the government and I'm tired of First Amendment shilly-shallying that fills my children's Hotmail screens with dozens of porn come-ons every day.

That's spam. Library censorware won't have the slightest affect on it. This is also another small instance of why I think the word "filter" is very misleading in discussion. Spam is something you don't want to see, but censorware is where an authority doesn't want you to see something. That's an important structural difference.

But, sigh, almost no-one cares what I say. Alex Beam is a columnist. I am barely more than a shouter to the wind.

See what I posted earlier, what I guess I should call the ARE NOT PORNOGRAPHY list.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:48 PM | Followups
March 28, 2003

Clear Channel, and "Rally For America"

[Sent this for Dave Farber's list a day or so ago, but it didn't make the cut]

Years ago, in futile attempts at spreading skepticism, I would often dig into whatever "hot story" was making the rounds of the Net. Now I've come to realize that is a mug's game. Whatever puny reach I have, it is less than the smallest whimper in the mighty media echo chamber.

These rallies are not exactly grassroots. But they are being flacked at a level far below top management. The idea does seem to have started with Glenn Beck, then gone up to a few like-minded radio stations, and been pushed relatively tepidly by a subsidiary of Clear Channel, "Premium Radio Networks". But, it's PR opportunities being taken, and jumping on the bandwagon, as opposed to a top-down directive. That's not a surprise, in the middle of a war.

One of the earliest press releases is at:

And a more recent press release (my emphasis):

Press Release
Source: Premiere Radio Networks
"Glenn Beck's Rallies for American Troops to Be Held This Weekend in Fort Wayne and Richmond"

Look, if this were a corporate directive, in no way would they be putting Glenn Beck's name on it, as part of the title.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:25 PM | Followups
March 26, 2003

Felten, more on conference / press and Al Gore - Internet

Edward Felten has an interesting response to my reply to his article discussing conferences and reporters:

I can see [Seth's] point, [but] I think hatchet-job stories are pretty rare in the respectable media, and I also think that most readers recognize such stories and discount them.

Regrettably, I have to disagree on both points. It's not even so much a problem of hatchet-job intent per se. Rather, suppose a reporter has been sent to a conference which turns out to be boring. Nothing much has happened. All statements are moderate and sedate. Does he or she go back and turn in an item that nothing happened? There's great incentive to make-up some conflict, to find a way to create a controversy or fabricate some disagreement.

I don't think I'm writing anything especially radical there. Just somewhat cynical. And the vast majority of the reporters can be ethical. It doesn't matter. All that's necessary is one reporter to decide it would be more profitable to write fiction instead of fact, and that may be the one piece that gets published. Because it's "interesting".

The companies who don't want representatives to talk if the press is present, are likely thinking, "Why risk it?". That they'll get all the press benefits from their own professional PR flacks, who are trained for that task, while avoiding any chance of getting embroiled in a fabrication because a lazy journalist had some empty space which needed filling. And with a large group of companies, the chances increase that at least a few companies in the group will feel this way.

Note that Microsoft, arguably, is so rich, in terms of market and PR-power, that it can take such risks. It's in a situation where it knows it has a stable of friendly reporters who will write it walks on water, and also unfriendly reporters who will write Bill Gates is more evil than Satan himself. In fact, it almost starts off from an inverted situation, where the journo-spins are already firmly in place, and the fact-content can only go up! So it's not at all clear that the trade-offs Microsoft makes, generalize to any principle of openness.

And, wow, I don't think people discount such fabrications. No, not at all. I believe they think they do. Nobody has ever said to me "I'm gullible. I believe everything I read in the papers.". No, everyone is smart, tough, skeptical, checks it out. And is above average too.

The Gore example fascinates me for several reasons, but the threads of various ideas is one of them. Regarding:

(And though too much was made of Gore's statement, he did say, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet", which just isn't true. Yes, Gore deserves credit for promoting the Internet before almost anyone else on Capitol Hill had even heard of it; and yes, he did take the initiative in funding the Internet at a crucial stage of its build-out. But there is a big difference between creating something and merely paying for a stage of its construction.)

But Gore was in fact refering to his funding efforts. That's clear if his whole reply is read. Phil Agre has put it this way:

I did not say that Wired News had made up any quotations. So far as I am aware, the quotations in both of the Wired News articles got Gore's words right. Nor is the issue really one of quotation out of context, if by "context" we mean the words that Gore uttered immediately before and after the sentence about the Internet. (It is important to get that whole sentence, though, so that it's understood that he's talking about actions he took in the context of his service in Congress, and that he's not claiming, like a Tennessee version of Elena Ceaucescu, to have done the technical work.) I did feel that those articles paraphrased Gore's comments in tendentious ways, that they made several unfair and misleading arguments, and that their overall effect was to grossly distort both the clear meaning of what Gore said and the reality to which Gore referred. In particular, if we have to choose whether it was Gore or Wired News who engaged in "exaggeration", I think that Wired News would clearly be the winner.

Instead of looking at the clause in isolation, take a look what was in fact said by Gore:

BLITZER: I want to get to some of the substance of domestic and international issues in a minute, but let's just wrap up a little bit of the politics right now.

Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley, a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?

GORE: Well, I will be offering -- I'll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.

But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

Look at the preceding clause - "During my service in the United States Congress ...". Look at the sentence afterwards, "I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system". He's talking about all that he did in Congress. What's the clear meaning here? Who is in fact offering a "whopper of a tall tale", Gore's off-the-cuff phrasing, or the agenda-driven journalist who microparses it for scandal?

Isn't it understandable why some companies would not want to take a chance on having reporters present?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups
March 25, 2003

Conference representatives not speaking if a reporter is present

In an article discussing conferences and reporters, Edward Felten writes concerning companies not wanting conference representatives to speak to the press:

I have to admit that I find these companies' policies hard to understand. A company trusts somebody to speak on its behalf in a public forum, where many of the company's competitors and customers are present, and where everybody is welcome to take notes. And yet somehow it is too dangerous to let that employee say the same things if a reporter is also present.

I don't find it hard to understand at all. While one can disagree with the decision, and argue a different cost-benefit tradeoff, it is rational. If a reporter is present, the chances go way up that minor flub or misstatement by a speaker, one which competitors and customers would let pass in context, may be blown-up into a huge scandal by a reporter looking for a hobby-horse story to write. I just collected a bunch of resources for the infamous Al Gore "Invented the Internet" smear. It was something basically fabricated by a reporter who deliberately decided to spin a few words of very reasonable reply from Al Gore about his achievements, into an absurd technical claim. The company is probably thinking, "All we need is for one of our people to reply sarcastically, to make a joke about something, and then there's the headline ``Company admits plans for world domination''".

Heck, I could write it:

Disassociated Press: Speaking at the Blather Conference, engineers from InsertNameHere candidly admitted that BuzzWord was really a secret plot for world domination. The shocking admission came during a question-and-answer period, where an audience member asked "Aren't you trying to take over the world here?". Engineer Patsy was clearly heard to reply "Yeah, you betcha we are". This represents the first outright admission of what has been criticism for months, by industry insiders and political outsiders ...

And of course, the defense of the article would be that Engineer Patsy really said those words - necessarily passing over the fact that in context, they were a sarcastic reply to a not entirely serious question. In fact, I based the above item on the attack on Gore for telling a "Union Label" joke, which I saw again when digging up some references for the above Invented-The-Internet page.

Now, once more, it's possible to argue about the trade-offs, that credulous press coverage will outweigh attacking press coverage. But it's certainly not hard to understand why it can be very attractive to have a policy of never dealing with the press other than through professional flacks.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:56 PM | Followups
March 20, 2003

Al Gore "invented the Internet" smear debunking

[Sent this for Dave Farber's list today, but it didn't seem to make the cut]

Dave, with the appointment of Al Gore to the Apple Board of Directors, I've seen yet another burst of comments repeating the smear that he made the claim to have "invented the Internet". This time around, there's some debunking, but it's still an idea embedded in the public consciousness. I've started a collection of debunking links and resources, at:

Al Gore "invented the Internet" - resources

This includes links to:

CNN Transcript

Al Gore and The Internet
Red Rock Eater News Service, Phil Agre, Mar. 28 2000

Al Gore's support of the Internet, by V.Cerf and B.Kahn [ I second this djf]

Did Gore invent the Internet?
Salon, Scott Rosenberg, Oct. 5, 2000

Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet
First Monday, Richard Wiggins, October 2000

If there's interest, I'll expand the resources to encompass lesser material about the story which isn't well-known, such as Declan McCullagh's (the story's inventor) historical rearguard defense of it:

"And I'm not about to change what I write or how I write based on the efforts of Democratic partisans such as you (and I note that Phill [Hallam-Baker] earlier today complained to my editors)."
http://legalminds.lp.findlaw.com/list/cyberia-l/msg27543.html (3 Oct 2000)

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:49 PM | Followups
February 28, 2003

The Register covers my Google removal report

Be careful what you wish for, you might get it ... or not quite what you want ...

Google in paedo censorship debacle

It could've been worse, but there were some severe errors here. I've made some updates to:

Chester's Guide to Molesting Google

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:56 AM | Followups
January 20, 2003

Martin Luther King and Affirmative Action

In honor of Martin Luther King day, I'd like to do my part to counteract a myth which has been developed about his most well-known speech, and King's beliefs.

Martin Luther King said: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character."

But he did not say he believed that the best way to achieve that dream was to pretend racism had vanished, and to act strictly as if it had. Nothing could be further from his true beliefs and actions. He favored outright quotas. Again, contrary to a popular fiction which has been put around his beliefs, he favored quotas, and affirmative action, and race-based hiring as immediate relief from centuries of ingrained discrimination. This is an extremely unpleasant bit of history to those who have tried to turn him into some sort of (safely dead) black conservative with which to bash liberals. But it was his actual views.

Read the book "And The Walls Came Tumbling Down", by Ralph David Abernathy, especially pages 400-405, for a long description of this philosophy in action, through economic pressure on businesses. Some choice quotes:

"If the proportion of blacks to the total population was 12 percent, then we would ask that 12 percent of the employees be black."

"We would then tell him we were not willing to wait for these vacancies, that we wanted to see blacks in jobs right now."

"We were breaking eggs to make omelettes, and we insisted that businesses not postpone their responsibility to correct an historic imbalance."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Followups
November 30, 2002

Michael Jackson's nose

There's an unflattering photo of Michael Jackson making the rounds, where it looks like his nose has collapsed. It's indeed a weird-looking photo. But nobody seems to have pointed out that very prosaically, a close look seems to indicate it's merely that he has TWO pieces of tape on his nose. One short piece going down vertically, and over that short piece, a longer horizontal piece running across his face (and partially covering the short vertical piece). The pointed, collapsed, end, in the photograph is just the square end of the vertical piece being folded together and then pressed-down on the end of his nose.

Try it with a Band-Aid. That pointed end is clearly what happens when the ends of the tape are pinched together. It just looks like a part of his nose, because the color the tape is close to the color of his skin (assuming the latter term has any meaning these days).

Not that Jackson hasn't undergone extensive, err, bodily modification. So it seems he was at the tail end of losing some face. But give the guy a break. How pretty would you look, while in court for being sued, and not fully recovered from surgery (albeit cosmetic surgery)?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:22 PM | Followups
November 27, 2002

The Slashdot Defect

Edward Felten decries an inaccurate Slashdot comment receiving a high score:

In theory, Slashdot's collective moderation process is supposed to weed out ill-informed postings by downgrading their scores; but in practice that doesn't happen as often as one would like.

The problem here is the difference between what is correct and what is popular. This aspect of the scoring system is well-known, even legendary (sigh ... there goes any of my possible newfound respectability).

The system is a vote (with editors sometimes stuffing the ballot-boxes, but that's a whole different topic, some other time ...). There's some attempt to weed-out bad voters, but above-average intelligence, much less topical expertise, is not a particular qualification. It's almost a study in partially (not fully) democratic voting-theory. That is, confident, appealing "candidates" (posts) often do reasonably well, even if they're not particularly right.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:41 AM | Followups
November 02, 2002

This is NOT about the Microsoft Decision

The Microsoft Decision is upon us. I'm not adding my two bits. Forget it. I do read through legal decisions at times, because I like original source documents. But I'm not going to slog through 344 pages and try to find something to say about it, something which hasn't already been said elsewhere by pundits with far more of an audience than me. In fact, I've probably got a better chance of attracting any notice by writing that I'm not writing about it.

Read Lawmeme's coverage summary

Actually, Lawmeme has lots of coverage itself

The story on kuro5hin.org has a phrase worth noting:

Talking heads and typing fingers with little or no understanding of this technology will be orally menstruating their half-cocked and half-cooked ideas everywhere you turn.

That's an odd way of putting things, but the idea is clear. I refuse to add to the plague of punditry here.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:06 PM