Have a Heart

Accompanied by the simple message “The end of the world is coming . . .” a friend passed along a story from Bloomberg titled Dutch Allow Endemol TV Show With a Kidney as Prize. The story is simple (I didn’t link to the Bloomberg article because it took too long to load): a Dutch woman with an inoperable brain tumor wants to donate a kidney before she dies–to a recipient chosen on national television with text-message input from viewers. (Will the losers receive the board game edition of the show?) The Dutch government refused to block Friday’s broadcast of “The Big Donor Show” because, it said, doing so would breach free speech rights. BNN, the television network, claims it is broadcasting the show to publicize the need for kidney and other organ donors. That the winner’s tissue may not be compatible with the donor’s–and that the premise is unethical and tasteless–are irrelevant.

In a related story, next year’s edition of The Apprentice will require contestants to give Donald Trump not only their soul but one body part they deem expendable. (Insert punchline here.)

A Good Idea at the Time

Recently I had the bright idea to switch this blog’s web host. It germinated when I could not install a plugin to my WordPress blog software because it required a newer edition of WordPress. Upgrading WordPress is not hard but does require paying more attention than I wanted to spend. Wondering if there might be an easier way to go I learned about Fantastico, a script installation manager offered by many webhosting companies–but not by Startlogic, my then-host. One-button installation of WordPress upgrades and other goodies? I can make a good cup of espresso with one button, so why not? After a day of surveying prices, packages, and customer feedback I signed up with BlueHost. Then the fun began.

That you are reading this shows that I was successful but I could have installed new WordPress software on my old host in 1/20th of the time I spent transferring the WordPress databases to the new host. My goals were simple: transfer the blog without losing any posts, comments, or other data, and simplify the site’s structure. I can figure out most of the computer- and network-related problems I encounter, but the process ain’t pretty. For instance, the blog had been installed in a directory yielding the ugly URL trudalane.net/afcblog/wordpress. The occasion of this transfer was an opportunity to change the installation to the cleaner trudalane.net.

This was a case of working for a week to save a half-hour upgrading WordPress . I wandered lost though the alleys and by-ways of MySQL, an unfathomable place where the natives speak a lingo I don’t comprehend. Like Paris, without the Seine, Eiffel Tower, and exquisite food. I’ve pondered over statements such You will get a MySQL query syntax error number 1064 when you incorrectly use a reserved word in your query such as “when” or “order”. Okay, so how do I fix the syntax? Easy! Read the appropriate MySQL manual. I can deal with the Internal Revenue Code (with some whining) but I could not crack the MySQL 5.0 Reference Manual.

User-maintained forums at WordPress Support made the difference. They told me which web-hosting companies were best (I still went with BlueHost), how to transfer to a new host and install WordPress in the root directory, how to transfer database files, and how to access my installation while changing domain-name registrars. The forums contain a typical amount of web chaff but useful nuggets did not require an inordinate amount of digging. Those nuggets kept my frustration within tolerable limits and allowed, with ample trial-and-error experimentation, successful data transfer. Now, if I can just get the RSS feeds to work . . .

Wi-Fi Free Ride is Michigan Crime

I am using the free wireless access at a coffeehouse in Manchester, Vermont to read my emails and came across this Volokh Conspiracy post: Crime to use coffee shop Wi-Fi without entering the coffee shop? It concerns Sam Peterson, a Michigan man who parked outside a coffee shop each day at lunch to go online, without ever entering the shop. The Chief of Police noticed this pattern and approached Peterson to ask what he was doing. Peterson told him that he was using the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi to check his email. After checking the law the Chief obtained a warrant for Peterson’s arrest for obtaining unauthorized access to a computer system. Peterson pled guilty, receiving a $400 fine and 40 hours of community service. The coffee shop’s owner was not aware either that Peterson was using the shop’s Wi-Fi without buying a cup of joe or that such access might constitute a crime.

Was Peterson’s Wi-Fi use illegal? Like the Wi-Fi I am using at the moment the shop’s system was not encrypted or otherwise secured. (I bought a medium cup of coffee and a lemon-poppy muffin.) If the system’s owner takes no steps to control access, is any access unauthorized? The post analyzes the Michigan statute, which is unusual in that it creates a presumption that access is not authorized. It’s worth reading.

The 59th Street (Toll)Bridge Song

In the spring of 1967 Jimi Hendrix released Are You Experienced?, his first album, and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My friend Rick bought Sgt. Pepper as soon as it was available and, incredibly excited by what he heard, called and played it for me over the telephone. I first heard “With a Little Help From My Friends”, “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” on a spring afternoon while standing in my kitchen with a bakelite phone receiver pressed to my right ear. My first listening of Are You Experienced? came courtesy of another friend, who played it one Friday evening at full volume in his darkened bedroom. My hair stood on end at the opening chords of “Purple Haze.” I had never before heard music like that.

We experience music more immediately, more personally than any other form of popular culture. Movies and television required (until video-capable iPods and $1.99 episodes of Lost and The Office) that we sit and watch a screen. In my lifetime music has always been portable, first through car radios (my high-school car, a 1965 Plymouth Fury, had only AM radio which means I heard Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” about 1,000 times in 1970 alone), then through the Sony Walkman and its progeny, which led to today’s ubiquitous MP3 players. Technology has allowed us to accompany our lives with a personal soundtrack. We all have music that is ours. 1967 was also the year of The Graduate,plastics,” and the birth of Dustin Hoffman’s career. I recall Dick Cavett asking Hoffman whether sudden fame had changed his life. Hoffman replied “It’s not like Mrs. Robinson plays when I go to the bathroom in the morning.” These days we can all have Mrs. Robinson–the Simon and Garfunkel original or the Lemonhead’s version–playing when we go to the bathroom in the morning.*

I’m thinking about this because of recent exposure to the inevitable boomer-retrospective articles and radio shows about the Summer of Love and the juxtaposition of two articles: Jason Fry’s “The Perils of Online Song Lyrics” in the 5/21 Wall Street Journal (subtitled “Yahoo’s New Lyrics Service Is Promising,But Why Can’t I Copy and Paste the Words?”) and Mark Helprin’s “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?,” an op-ed piece in the 5/20 New York Times. Helprin argues that copyright law should protect creative works to the same extent that law generally protects rights in personal and real property. Congress can, Helprin asserts, circumvent (my word, not his) the Constitutional provision authorizing Congress to extend a monopoly to authors “for limited times,” by vitiating the meaning of “for limited times:” “Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw.” Helprin is a far-more skilled and practiced polemicist than me, but to my simple mind this expression of his argument falls off the rails before it leaves the station. In its entirety Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress’s power to enact copyright law must serve the purpose of promoting the progress of useful arts. This argument (in Eldred v Ashcroft) failed to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term to the life of the author plus 70 years, but the Eldred decision does not support the position that Congress can extend the term of copyright at will. Larry Lessig is articulating a more complete and scholarly refutation of Helprin’s argument.

The article about the Yahoo lyrics site explores the confluence of our appropriation of popular music for personal expression and the “propertization” of copyright. As Fry states “[s]ong lyrics are one of those things the Internet might have been made for . . .” Most of use have searched for song lyrics. The Archive of Misheard Lyrics at www.kissthisguy.com is a favorite site. Song lyrics are part of our aural wallpaper, a cultural touchstone, a form of shorthand, titles for the chapters of our lives (I’m in one titled “well . . . how did I get here?“), the raw material for wedding vows, and memory triggers. We hear a phrase in conversation that reminds us of a lyric that transports us to the time in our life associated with that song. (If reading that made you think of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, good.) Song lyrics are all that but, at the request of copyright holders, you can’t copy and paste lyrics from Yahoo!’s lyric site. According to Nicholas Firth, Chairman and CEO of BMG Music, Inc., a copied lyric is a lost sale–an idiotic comment that ignores the reality in which most of us live. If the choice is between paying a licensing fee to copy a lyric into a blog post and going without I’ll go without. Most people would say the same, even people old enough to remember Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” who did not grow up with file-sharing. I won’t pay the copyright holder a trespassing fee to walk in my own memories.

* It must have been kismet that caused iTunes shuffle to play the S&G version of Mrs. Robinson as I was writing this paragraph.

PS: A student sent me the link to this video a few days ago. Titled “A Fair(y) Use Tale” it summarizes principles of copyright law using clips from Disney animations. Cute, obsessive, and worth a look, if just to wonder: how long did it take to put this together?

Thank you . . .

to the School of Management Class of 2007 for honoring me with the Beckwith Prize for Teaching Excellence and Service to the Undergraduate Program. A prize for either teaching excellence or service would be wonderful; this is a double treat. I was not at the SMG graduation to accept it because I was attending my son Josh’s English Department graduation from the College of Arts and Sciences. This is what I asked to be read in my absence:

Woody Allen said “90% of life is just showing up” but he didn’t explain how to show up in two places at the same time. I’m honored and touched that the Class of 2007 has selected me to receive the Beckwith Award. I regret that I cannot be here to celebrate your graduation—only my own family celebration could keep me away. You have become an important part of our lives and your departure is bittersweet. I wish you continued success—and please, stay in touch.

The Closer

Yesterday’s heavy rain (the mid-day sky turned end-of-the-world black at 3:30 and 6:00 PM) caused the Red Sox to postpone last night’s game versus Detroit to today, creating a day-night doubleheader. I had no classes, exams, grades to submit, committee meetings, or other academic responsibilities and attended the game with one of my sons. The game featured strong pitching from both teams, moving at a good pace (love those ground ball outs) and resulting less than three hours later in a 2-1 Sox win. Julian Tavarez allowed the one run in his seven innings and Hideki Okajima pitched a one-two-three 8th, setting up a save opportunity in the 9th.

Jonathan Papelbon’s save was the highlight. The Fenway atmosphere turns electric before Papelbon shows his face, as cheers of anticipation grow and the crowd gets to its feet. Fans in the bleachers who can see into the Sox bullpen cheer louder as they see Papelbon approach and open the bullpen gate. He steps onto the warning track, bumps fists with the on-duty cop, and then pauses for a moment just outside the bullpen, head down, as Wild Thing blasts from the speakers. The crowd goes nuts. After the pause he methodically steps across the warning track until he touches the outfield. When his feet hit the grass he jogs to the mound. This ritual is becoming as familiar as Larry Bird wiping his hands on the soles of his sneakers or Nomar compulsively adjusting his batting gloves between pitches. Papelbon’s serious, almost solemn approach to each step enhances the effect, as if each one layers him with another piece of mental armor. As he warms up the announcer intones “Now pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Jonathan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Papelbon!” and the roars, cheers, and applause climax. With everyone continuing to stand Papelbon finishes warming up, grips the ball as the batter stands in, peers intently under his visor at the catcher (Mirabelli this afternoon), winds up, and throws a strike. More cheers. Every strike sends a jolt through the crowd. 13 pitches (11 strikes), two swinging strikeouts, and a 5-3 ground ball out later Papelbon pumps his fist and the opening chords of Dirty Water signal the Sox victory as the crowd, smiling as one, leave the Park. It’s a quintessential Boston experience.

AG Declares War on IP Infringement

This precis on GigaLaw caught my eye: “The Bush administration isn’t ready to curtail its crackdown on copyright crimes as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asked Congress for stronger criminal penalties for repeat offenders and stiffer penalties for counterfeiters who cause people to be injured or die.” Huh? Counterfeiters who cause people to be injured or die? The linked article passed along this tidbit of information without comment or explanation (not a strength, perhaps, of The Hollywood Reporter). I had to understand the link between copyright infringement and death.

The reason for this alarming warning is the Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007, proposed on Monday to Congress (see here and here) by beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.* (Aside: read this article from today’s New York Times. It describes how Gonzales, then White House Counsel, along with White House chief of staff Andrew Card, tried to convince Attorney General John Ashcroft, hospitalized and “critically ill with pancreatitis,” to renew the National Security Agency’s clandestine domestic surveillance program. Ashcroft, an architect of the USA-PATRIOT Act and no civil rights zealot, refused to renew the program due to his concerns about its constitutionality.) Gonzales’s proposed act would criminalize copyright infringement far beyond current law. Among other things it would:

  • Increased penalties for repeat offenders,
  • Expand forfeiture provisions for criminal copyright infringement (which means one’s computer, iPod, or house could be taken upon conviction, just as if the person were a drug dealer),
  • Empower the federal government to engage in wiretap surveillance in copyright investigations,
  • Criminalize attempted copyright infringement, and
  • Impose prison sentences of up to 20 years for infringement that results in bodily harm, or life if the infringing activity results in death. Examples of such potentially physically-harmful infringement include (per Wired) “hawking bogus Lipitor or adding a fake “UL” logo to a power cable that doesn’t meet Underwriters Laboratories’ safety standards.”

The Act does not yet have a House or Senate sponsor. If it passes it imagine the possibilities: Law and Order: Piracy Unit. “Now drop those blank CDs, put your hands over your head, and back away from the computer!”

*A Google search for the exact phrase produced 3,490 results. A search for those words not in that exact order produced 44,600 results. How many results does it take for this guy to resign?

Amateurism vs. Expertise

Two items from Bruce Schneier’s 5/15 Crypto-Gram merit side-by-side attention. First Schneier links to 7 Signs of Terrorism, a video prepared by the Michigan State Police intended to “train” citizens to recognize terrorist activity in the planning stages and report it to the police. A person using binoculars or writing notes on a map could be involved in surveillance, so report him to the police. A person asking questions about bridge, school, power plant–or anything–could be involved in elicitation, so report him to the police. A suspicious person who “doesn’t belong” could be a terrorist, so report him to the police. Finishing the video one asks why the Michigan State Police are encouraging tips based on uninformed hunches from amateurs. Then, in a post titled Recognizing “Hinky” vs. Citizen Informants, Schneier explains why encouraging “people to contact the authorities every time they see something suspicious [will] waste our time chasing false alarms: foreigners whose customs are different, people who are disliked by someone, and so on . . . The key difference is expertise. People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.” Schneier’s examples and responses to comments flesh out his argument well.


Semester-end thoughts, in no particular order.

  • A few years after starting teaching I added two pages of frequently asked questions to my syllabus. (Sample FAQs include I have another class/I work during your scheduled office hours. When can I meet with you? and Are the exams really open-book and open-notes?) I realized soon that students didn’t read the FAQs, and likely did not read the syllabus either. I then added an easter egg to the end of the FAQs asking students to send me an email that they had read them and not to tell classmates about this request. It doesn’t help or hurt students to respond. It’s there just to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve kept track of the response rate in the eight or so semesters since. The first semester’s response rate was about 30%. The response rate has trended up since then, reaching 85%–47 out of 55 students–in one section this semester. 36 of 48 students–75%–responded in the other section. The reason, I think, has nothing to do with conscientiousness, but word-of-mouth: “Make sure you read all of Randall’s syllabus. There’s a trick in there.” Whatever the reason, I’m happy if they read it.
  • Most students respond to the FAQs in the period from one week before to two weeks after classes begin, but responses trickle in throughout the semester. The record for latest response had belonged to a student who emailed me on the morning of the final exam. As all records should be, that one was broken last week when a student responded to the FAQs the day after the final exam.
  • More students may read the FAQs but for most the information doesn’t sink in. They still ask the same questions. The difference now is that a query about an FAQ topic provokes knowing looks from the students who’ve read and remembered the information.
  • The FAQs are not just to inform students; they keep me in line. My class policies were not handed down from the mountain top. Climbing the teaching learning curve I made my life difficult a few times by providing contradictory information to the same questions. Writing it all down allows this Socratic response: “Well, what do the FAQs say about that?” The questioner and I can then retreat to look up the FAQs and find the answer.