Category Archives: politics & law

Stephen Cobert (x2) on Off-Shore Drilling

On The Colbert Report last night, Stephen Colbert faced off against himself in “Formidable Opponent” to discuss the high price of oil, the weird practices of oil spectators, and off-shore drilling versus alternative energy plans:

Another example of his great talent for explaining complex issues so that more people are aware of and understand these issues (and have a laugh while you’re at it).

Another show that’s great at this: The Daily Show, of course. Remember John Hodgman’s piece on Net Neutrality? Genius.

And that’s another reason why I love the Kids in the Hall…

Here’s a great online video story: a couple of months ago, I created my own YouTube channel to host the video clips I occasionally post here. Within 24 to 48 hours after I put the first few clips up, I was contacted by the YouTube copyright police, notifying me that two of my clips (they were of The Daily Show) had been taken down due to complaints of copyright infringement.

In addition to personal videos, I managed to slip a Kids in the Hall sketch through the system. Amazingly, I received a message from the KITH today via YouTube and I was afraid I was going to have another copyright complaint in my hands. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the following message:

Hey Hey,

Thanks for posting one of our videos on YouTube. We love it! Wanted to tell you about our new sketch "Car Bangers," available only online. If you like it, please subscribe to our page as well. And we are on tour- check out dates on our MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/kithtour08.

Peace!
KITH

Based on the comments posted on the KITH YouTube channel, it looks like many other fans got similar messages thanking them for posting video clips online. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever heard of artists (or rather the people that own the copyright allowing the artists) to support fans putting some of their works online. It gives the concept of viral video a fair chance! This is a particularly interesting idea for artists like KITH– it’s been years since they were on the air, but with fans posting videos online, they can reach a whole new fan base, a fan base who can buy their DVDs, buy tickets to their live shows, and more. It’s a great marketing opportunity and I’m glad somebody sees it so clearly and simply and acts on it. No muddying the waters with threats of lawsuits and content hoarding.

So, aside from loving their sketches, that’s another reason why I love the Kids in the Hall. Check out their latest video: Car Bangers.

IdeaFarm™, part 2

I’m always surprised when I find out that people who don’t actually know me read my blog, especially when they go to the trouble of actually writing to me in response to a post. In this case, the man behind IdeaFarm™ sent me feedback on my February 18th post on the project. He gave me permission to use “all or none of this info in [my] blog,” so here goes:

Unfortunately, while you can read my original blog post, sometime between March 9 and now, the IdeaFarm website is no longer up and all you get is an “Under Construction” notice. Luckily for you, here’s a copy of the cached version through Google you can take a look at (I grabbed it as a PDF in case it “disappears”). The Way Back Machine took me as far back as 1997 and through multiple versions of the site over the last decade. In any case, the version I saw when I wrote my post last month was actually closer (maybe even the same) to the cached version from Google, so keep that in mind while reading what follows. (As an aside, the site I saw that matches the cached version from Google is actually a “freebee placeholder” since lack of funds forced the “normal web site” to be shut down. Personally, I think the placeholder site looked less sketchy.)

The email from the man behind IdeaFarm was somewhat rambling, but he did address a few specific issues I had raised:

  1. The “Governing Propietor’s” real name. Privacy, or maybe more appropriately anonymity, is a key part of the organization’s interactions. One way IdeaFarm is organized is through villages– economic associations that work to “create a compelling economic incentive for everyone in the postal code to live unselfishly.” This work is usually done during anonymous weekly dinners and if names must be used, only first names are allowed. I had originally commented that they should make at least one exception for IdeaFarm’s organizer (he refuses to call himself the “leader”), even if it’s just his first name to help lend credibility (or at least make it feel less creepy– imagine having to call someone the “Governing Proprietor” all the time). Surprisingly, the first thing he pointed out in his email to me is that his name is on the website– at the very bottom, he “signs” the website with his legal name: “Wo’O Ideafarm.” (According to this guy, he changed his name in 1999; from 1954 to 1999, it was Jon Clyde Duringer.)
  2. The “accusatory” sign.” He says the photo I used is very old and that the signage was changed several years ago. The phrase “THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM IS THAT YOU HAVE BECOME A SELFISH PEOPLE” is no longer on the sign and what’s left is the word “SELFISH” in a circle with a slash through it. He suggested that I check out his YouTube interview (embedded below) where he talks about the signage and why he changed it, among other things. (Basically, like me, people had a negative reaction to the sign, but some so negatively that they threw eggs and yelled insults and threats. Aside from that, he also realized that if someone is having a hard time, is feeing down and out, seeing that sign might make him unfairly feel worse.)
  3. The Yahoo! email address. I had commented that using a Yahoo! address on his site– ideafarmcity@yahoo.com— didn’t seem very professional, but he assured me that it is not his private email address, but a “throw away” one (although that was the address he used to email– seems more like temporary, not throw away). This is apparently one of the consequences of having to take down the IDEAFARM.COM server.

Which brings us to the topic of software and servers. Remember that IdeaFarm is a “civil and political project funded by the sale of software products and services.” It seems that, in the last six months to a year, the “real” IDEAFARM.COM server is no longer up and running because a) it is not yet “hacker proof” (one mission guiding development is to “connect people wholesomely” through a “zero spam, zero advertisement, zero thought steering, secure email service”) and b) Wo’O Ideafarm ran out of funds for the normal website. As aforementioned, the website I saw was a simple “freebee placeholder” because he ran out of funds for the “normal website,” which was running IP-DOS. IP-DOS, if you remember, stands for IdeaFarm™ Piggyback-Distributed Operating System, one of the organization’s software products. Unfortunately, it’s a memory hog” (not a good sign) that requires a “full dedicated server,” which costs about $100 per month (versus shared virtual hosting which can be as cheap as $5 to $10 per month or even a virtual dedicated host which is about $45 per month). So, until it can be re-written to be less of a memory hog, the freebee placeholder (or now the “Under Construction” page) will have to suffice. Unfortunately, his resources, programming or otherwise, are scarce:

There is a lot of software work to do, I am doing it alone, and I am doing it under very difficult conditions. (I live in that old truck and do my programming in there and in noisy public libraries. My computer is old, the monitor is failing, its data cable is broken and splinted with paint stirring sticks to keep it working. My second hand keyboard finally became unuseable, so I replaced it with an el-cheapo Walmart keyboard that, even though brand new, is almost as bad; I have to hit the ‘5’ key 5 times or more to get a single ‘5’ keypress.)

Funds are also short because although he is “one of the most experienced software developers alive today,” he currently works part-time as a minimum-wage day laborer (perhaps as part of his rejection of the selfishness that he says has tainted Silicon Valley) and given the tenuous nature of day labor, especially in California, he’s relocated to Las Vegas, NV, where business is also slow, but he’s keeping busy working on IP-DOS, getting the website back up and then getting some temporary work.

About half of the email, as described above, was useful and informative– he did clear up questions about his name and email address, including clarification on the website itself and IP-DOS (although, I’m still not exactly sure what kind of software it really is). The second half of the email though started with a somewhat lengthy and detailed description of his personal living situation, the part I call the “pity party.” By no means do I think the life of a day laborer is easy and I know that everyday, especially in Silicon Valley, that type of work is devalued in favor of information workers and those jobs are constantly disappearing. However, he made a choice to work as a part-time day laborer, living out of that truck– he explains in his YouTube interview that he started working with computers as early as 1974 and experienced the exciting boom in personal computing of the mid-80’s to the early 90’s. Maybe he didn’t mean for it to sound that way or for that purpose, but it sure came off as fishing for pity, going on about his old computer, failing monitor, broken data cable and cheap keyboard with a faulty “5” key.

But, the thing that really bothered me in the end was how he ended his email:

Skepticism regarding legitimacy of anything new is healthy, up to a point. But you people in the United States are immobilized by excessive skepticism. This project is totally “out in the open” and I’ve done everything that I can think of to eliminate any basis for suspicion. The bottom line is that if I can’t get you people to take a serious look at this project, get beyond your skepticism, and get involved, then the project will fail. I cannot do this alone… Your first blog article was one of ten zillion responses voicing skepticism and encouraging people to DO NOTHING. Why not be different? Why not break the pattern? Be bold and tell your readers that maybe, just maybe, this project is legit and that it is an opportunity to DO SOMETHING.

For most of you, your skepticism is comfortable because it provides you with just the excuse you need to continue to DO NOTHING. You like that because you are indeed a selfish people.

Anything that includes use of the phrase “you people” starts to sound like a rant and makes it hard (at least for me) to take it seriously. And after having taken down the old sign because it was “accusatory,” those last comments sound like a well-practiced speech full of accusations. Nevertheless, while my original blog post did voice my skepticism, I consider it more of a critical look at something that was being advertised to me very publicly, very often. Interestingly, I asked many of my friends about the truck/sign and almost all of them said they had seen and wondered about it, but had never looked into it. If anything, I did bother to look into this project, to take a “serious look” at whatever materials were available and in the end, questioned whether this project was “legit.” I voiced my opinion, which I think I’m entitled to after having done what research I could, and while I voiced skepticism, I don’t think I encouraged anybody to “do nothing.” I close my original post with the words: “[S]o if you see this truck around the Bay Area, now you know a little bit more. Judge for yourself!” At the end of the day, I certainly don’t think IdeaFarm is the only remedy for selfishness and I’m not sure what necessary connection there is between skepticism and complacency– or in Wo’O Ideafarm’s words, comfort “because it provides you with just the excuse you need to continue to DO NOTHING.”

I could go on and on about this, but I’ll stop here and say again, “Judge for yourself!” In fact, I think a better argument for IdeaFarm is presented in the YouTube interview (filmed about a year ago), so check it out:

The Stanford Copyright Integrity Initiative

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I’ve commented often on file-sharing, copyright, and universities certainly more than a few times and while my blogging has been sparse lately, today’s announcement of “The Stanford Copyright Integrity Initiative” deserved spending some time on a blog post. The initiative was apparently “introduced by Stanford University to demonstrate the university’s leadership in efforts to strengthen the integrity of copyrights and intellectual property.” As early as a little before 10am this morning, my department (Student Computing/Residential Computing) received an email from a worried student– after reading the announcement on the front page of The Daily, the University’s student newspaper, the student visited riaa.stanford.edu (as directed in the article) and after entering his name, found that Stanford “has likely reported” his name to the RIAA, MPAA, or ESA. The student was both confused and worried– you see, after receiving his first copyright complaint a little while back, he hasn’t illegally downloaded a single song, movie or anything else! Has his computer been hacked? Did file-sharing somehow get accidentally enabled on his computer?

This truth is that this clever little stunt was part of the annual fake Daily published by the Stanford Chaparral (or the “Chappie” as it’s affectionately called), Stanford’s student humor magazine. The article is actually quite well-researched and well-written, including references to actual facts, such as the highly publicized “three strikes” policy” in which students not only face increasingly severe disciplinary actions for repeated DMCA violations and complaints, but are also charged increasing amounts of money through associated “reconnection fees.” The article also says that over thirty students have reached their third strike in the past year with settlements with the complaining record companies totaling over $100,000. While the numbers are about right– over thirty students and settlements totaling about $100,000 in the past year– they actually apply to the results of the record companies’ “pre-litigation letter” campaign that started in 2007 and in which they target college students all over the country with the threat of lawsuits. As part of the new “integrity initiative,” the article explains, Stanford is now scanning its network for DMCA violations and actively reports the culprits to the “RIAA and other appropriate authorities.” In the first day alone, the article continues, “78 unnamed students” have already been reported and the University’s IT organization “predicts that approximately 34% of Stanford undergraduates will be contacted by the end of Wednesday.” (That’s approximately 2,274 students.) The article goes on to direct students on how to find out if they’ve been flagged (via riaa.stanford.edu) and in turn, find legal help (the EFF gets a nod).

The article itself was pretty funny– Stanford, like other universities, has been spending increasing amounts of resources dealing with illegal file-sharing and copyright and personally, I think it was a good jab at how ludicrous the effects of the DMCA and intimidation tactics of the entertainment industry have become.* Just last week, I was summarizing the results from the annual undergraduate computing survey and many students commented on their dissatisfaction with the University’s handling of file-sharing and copyright issues, wishing Stanford would take a stronger stance against the RIAA and the MPAA’s efforts.

The website though… I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but aside from probably breaking some basic network usage policies (for setting up riaa.stanford.edu, use of the Stanford seal, etc.), the website took it a little too far. The reality is that since the first lawsuits targeting students (circa 2003), the University really has been stepping up their efforts to stop illegal file-sharing and punish repeat offenders and something like this initiative isn’t completely impossible. The reality is that over thirty Stanford students– peers and perhaps even friends of the Chappie staff members– really have been sent pre-litigation letters and really have had to pay approximately $100,000 in settlement deals. The reality is that the entertainment industry really is targeting college students– people who have little knowledge of their legal options and/or resources to defend themselves. When you enter your name and hit submit at riaa.stanford.edu, it looks like they use your name to randomly** give you either a thumbs up (you haven’t been reported) or thumbs down (you’ve already been reported and look forward to a letter in the next three to four weeks). I would hate to think that a student who’s already paid out thousands of dollars because of a pre-litigation letter was tricked into going to the website and got a thumbs down.

I don’t know how long the site will stay up and working, so if you’re curious, here are some screenshots, etc.:

Notes:

* If you’re curious about Stanford’s actual policies on file-sharing and copyright, check out my department’s FAQ on File-Sharing & Copyright (also used by the General Counsel’s Office as well as the Information Security Office as the University’s “official” FAQ on the issue).

** It’s pseudorandom– the algorithm they’re using is deterministic. Unfortunately, no matter what Leland Stanford, Jr. does, he will always show up reported to the authorities.

IdeaFarm™


Idea Farm
Originally uploaded by cjanebuy

I see this truck almost everyday, parked in various locations along El Camino as I drive from Palo Alto to Mountain View. (I’ve always wanted to take a picture of it, but have never had the chance to, so, even though I have no idea who you are, thanks cjanebuy for posting a pic onto Flickr.) The combination of the self-lettering, the accusatory nature of the phrase/motto of “THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM IS THAT YOU HAVE BECOME A SELFISH PEOPLE, and the strategy here for marketing their message by parking these trucks all over the area and inviting passersby to “come and eat with us” to find out more has all the trappings of a cult, of some type of weird group of fanatics of something. (Not to mention that all interactions are done “anonymously,” participants using only first names.)

I finally bothered to visit the website– www.ideafarm.com— and while I don’t think it’s a cult like The Family International— but it’s definitely an enigma (they also depict IdeaFarm as “IdeaFarm City,” trademarked, of course, and a federal constitutional protectorate of the US.) It’s very Silicon Valley– the “civil and political project funded by the sale of software products and services,” such as the IdeaFarm ™ Piggyback Distributed Operating System (I, like you probably, have never head of this and have no idea of the pros/cons of this OS).

The mission of the project is to “[P]romote unselfish living by creating a compelling economic incentive to live wholesomely connected to other people, to the Earth, and to one’s Higher Power.” The main way to do this is through a yet-to-be-released “zero spam, zero advertisement, zero thought steering, secure email service.” Participants in this project are divided into two groups– the first, composed of non-members, agrees to a) “sign a public declaration of intent to live unselfishly” and b) participate anonymously in weekly community dinners. If you decide to become an actual member, you move up and become part of the second group who agrees to a) “participate regularly in the weekly community dinners,” b) “loan $8 to the organizer for 64 days, and c) pay 1 cent per day.” In turn, you apparently get “nifty” IdeaFarm software products and services plus richer access to the website.

In any case, reviewing the website and information, a few things to note that might raise red flags for you:

  • For an organization with unselfish living at its core, it is still a “private, for profit entity” and the “owner can dispose of revenue as he sees fit.”
  • The “owner” or “leader” of the organization is never mentioned or known by his name (not even his first name)– he is only referred to as the “Governing Propietor.” While anonymity is central to their interactions, disclosing the leader’s name (at least first name) seems like an acceptable exception, especially to lend credibility to the whole thing since they claim he is a “libertarian student of political economy, a product of the Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Chicago.”
  • A stratified system of participation and membership, largely based on financial contributions– Scientology anyone?* To be fair, they do assert that they are not asking for nor will they accept donations– financial contributions are considered “loans.”
  • Discussion of IdeaFarm and the website will only be done via email.
  • They’re using a yahoo email address. Weak.

Anyway, so if you see this truck around the Bay Area, now you know a little bit more. Judge for yourself!

* PS to the Scientology folks: please don’t sue me.

You have no YouTube videos

Well, not quite, but within 24-48 hours of putting some of my blog videos on YouTube, two (out of five) clips were taken down for copyright infringement. Both were clips from The Daily Show— interestingly, I had anticipated copyright complaints, but after doing a search for Daily Show clips on YouTube, I saw that there were many that had survived the Viacom YouTube copyright sweep, so I thought I might slip by. Alas, not so much:

YouTube Copyright Notice

Perhaps they’re only actively monitoring new content now– those lazy bastards.

In any case, I’ll scrounge around and try to replace the clips.

Sexual Harassment and You

California now requires sexual harassment training for all supervisors– among other provisions, this means two hours at least every two years. I just finished my two hours and many of the topics covered were issues I covered during the hiring practices portion of my Masters program. However, aside from topics like supervisor duties and liabilities, protected characteristics and what constitutes illegal discrimination, preventing a hostile work environment and how to handle complaints, the training covers some very interesting case studies. As we jokingly said, if it was sexual harassment training, it would be sexual harassment.

I don’t think I’m breaking any rules by sharing some of these case study examples since they are real world examples of sexual harassment litigation, so here’s a little sampling so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about:

One word: priapism. If you don’t know what this word means, you should learn, especially if you’re a guy, and then check out the 2006 case Arrieta-Colon v. Wal-Mart. Props to Arrieta-Colon in winning the case, but talk about awkward.

That may be sexual harassment, but more importantly, it’s sexual assault. There were one or two examples where one co-worker (usually male) continually made unwanted romantic/sexual advances towards a co-worker (usually female)– advances that weren’t just repeated requests for a date or inappropriate comments, but extended to groping, touching, and more. (Specifically, check out the 2006 case Howard v. Winter as one example.) While admittedly there are serious sexual harassment issues, what about the sexual assault? This type of behavior is illegal not only in terms of creating a hostile work environment, but also because it’s a crime. I don’t know about you, but sexual assault trumps sexual harassment.

Spanking. And lots of it. WTF? There were multiple examples of spanking somehow being introduced into the workplace as a sometimes valid, sometimes invalid form of punishment. Check out the 2002 case Yerry v. Pizza Hut of Southeast Kansas. If someone seriously suggested to me to physically hit or be hit, much less spank or be spanked, as a way to punish someone in the workplace, I think my head would explode. And yet, somehow people involved in such cases went along with this treatment. It’s amazing what people don’t understand about their rights, will put up with to keep their jobs or do to avoid confrontation.

And with that, a little video to lighten the mood:

Art Exhibit Sign: Join or Die


Art Exhibit Sign
Originally uploaded by sindy

This is about as much as I can show you of the art exhibit we dropped by during lunch yesterday. A series of oil paintings of an Asian-American woman having sex with various American presidents (and we’re talking like George Washington, not Bill Clinton). As one of my coworkers said, “She can paint, for sure.”

View “Join or Die,” by Justine Lai. and read her statement about the paintings. Also, read the Stanford Daily article about the exhibit.

UPDATED 8.29.2009: from reading her statement, I discovered that the woman in the paintings is actually herself!