Monday, July 27, 1998

Week of 07/27/1998

The Empire Strikes Back!
Darth Vader has nothing on Congress
- by David Matthews 2

You might say I warned you…

Last year, the US Supreme Court slapped Congress down for enacting the Communications Decency Act, the biggest Anti-American piece of trash since the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although I was ecstatic that the nine most technically-challenged judges in America gave the Internet the same level of First Amendment protection as print media, I warned people that the forces of censorship will try again with CDA 2.0.

Earlier this year, CDA 2.0, sponsored by the protégé of the dishonorable former Senator James Exxon of Nebraska, the equally dishonorable Senator Dan Coates of Indiana, was submitted for consideration. The only difference between this version and the original was the language. Gone was the criminalization of "indecent" material, and instead was inserted the equally vague "harmful to minors" standard.

Even worse was how CDA 2.0 got passed by the Senate - it was quietly inserted into the Senate Appropriations Bills for Commerce, State, and Justice departments without any debate. Typical trademark of dirty-pool politics. This is a despicable tactic by legislators, no matter what the subject is. The backroom bastard of American politics that created pork barrel legislation, secret pay raises, and campaign loopholes so large you can sail the Titanic AND the iceberg through them!

Actually, it should be to no surprise that the Senate would start the censorship ball rolling again. The US Senate started the ball rolling with the original CDA, and it appears that they have the same disdain for the very Constitution they have taken an oath to protect and defend.

Now let’s get brutally honest here: This second attempt at Internet censorship by these Net Nazis opens the door to even more regulation than the original CDA!

Proponents say that CDA 2.0 is only limited to "commercial web sites." So define a "commercial web site." Is my site considered a "commercial" site? Proponents say that CDA 2.0 is designed only to material that is "harmful to minors." I’ve read what the moralists define as "harmful," and the categories define as "harmful" include anything specifically that deals with sex or nudity. Guess what? That includes sex education, breast cancer, AIDS.. if a "commercial" site is vaguely defined, then any site can be considered a "commercial" site, and these discussions will be criminalized as well.

But that’s not all.. if a site does not have any "redeeming" value, that too is "harmful" to minors. Let’s see.. a "commercial" site that has no "redeeming" value can be considered "harmful" to minors. Gee, that’s almost as believable as a politician who tells the truth, listens to the voters, isn’t beholden to the special interest groups, and takes the Constitution seriously! If you believe that, I’ve got prime real estate in the Florida wetlands to sell you!

What’s worse is the message that apparently Congress wants to tell the parents of the world - namely that they’re sheep! They can’t be responsible, even though they are the ones who purchased the computer, they’re the ones who sign on the online service, they’re the ones who are paying for the phone bill, they’re the ones who are paying for the online service, and they’re the ones who decided to have kids! They can be responsible for EVERYTHING ELSE, but apparently, when it comes to computers, parents are presumed to be complete and total idiots!

More than a year ago, the US Supreme Court said, in no uncertain terms, that the Internet deserved the maximum amount of protection under the First Amendment. World leaders said in Geneva this past weekend that they want an Internet with as few regulations as possible. Congress, however, refuses to let well enough alone.

What will it take for the politicians to get it through their thick skulls? Are frequent violations of the First Amendment an impeachable offense for members of Congress? I feel we may have to go that far before they get the hint.

Monday, July 20, 1998

Week of 07/20/1998

Not a good consumer idea
- by David Matthews 2

Picture this scene in the near future:

Suzy: Mom! Johnny used up all the video credits!

Johnny: It’s not my fault, mom! I saw this really great scene in Aliens 20 and I wanted Billy to see it as well. I only rewound the video once!

Mom: Johnny, you know better than to rewind a video in the middle of a movie! I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, rewinding the movies takes one credit away. *sigh* Now I guess I won’t be able to purchase my soaps this week.

Absurd notion, you say?

Not if a few sadistically creative property rights advocates have their way.

It used to be that if you wanted to hear a certain song, you paid a ticket and went to the concert. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to pay a ticket and see the movie in a theatre. But then came records, tapes, and videocassettes. Now, if you want to hear a song, you go to the record store and buy their recording. If you want to see a movie, you go to the video store and rent or buy the video.

Of course, those luxuries weren’t easy to get. Music and movie distributors have long feared inventions that they claim would violate their commercial property rights. Copyright lawyers have tried to stop the release of videocassette players, especially recording VCRs, for fear that movies would be copied without their being able to collect royalties on them. Compact discs were also under the microscope, but were allowed at first because, like the phonograph before it, the technology to record the discs were much more expensive than to just play them. They were able to successfully suppress the American release of Digital Audio Tape, the new tape format that would’ve replaced cassettes much like compact discs replaced phonographs.

Copyright lawyers, and the movie and music industries they represent, have long been stymied by the legal concept of "fair use." Essentially, that means you are allowed to record whatever movie or song you want as long as it is for your own personal use and you don’t plan on reselling it. This was tolerable for copyright lawyers because the quality of audio and video cassette recordings weren’t perfect, and mass-copying of certain tapes or movies were of a lesser quality than the products they release.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the literal glut of "bootleg" videos being sold at conventions and flea markets around the world. It’s amazing at the number of videos ranging from homemade homage videos to outright pirated copies of movies and television shows that are available at very competitive costs. I guess if you want to see a movie bad enough, you’ll put up with poor quality, especially if it’s the kind of movie Hollywood would never release on video in the first place.

But now we have new computer technology that can make as many duplicates as possible, with the one-hundredth copy just as crisp and clear as the original. That, combined with the virtually uncontrolled medium such as the Internet, is making copyright lawyers very nervous.

However, that very technology is also giving rise to some very mercenary ideas for music producers.

How about a pay-per-use compact disc of your favorite artist? Let’s say you want to hear the new Aerosmith song from the Armageddon soundtrack. (Great album, by the way!) You buy the disc at $7.95, figuring that’s one hell of a bargain. You take it home and you listen to it. You like the sounds, so you listen to it again. Then, two weeks later, you pop the CD into the player and get nothing but static. It’s then that you realize that on the back of the jewel box is a notice that you purchased a pay-per-use disc. You were given a finite number of plays on your disc, and in order for you to hear the disc again, you have to pop the disc into a computer, call up an 800 number, give them your credit card number, and for $3.95, you can listen to your Armageddon pay-per-use CD ten more times.

Now let’s be brutally honest here.. this is a bad idea whose time shouldn’t even be given fifteen seconds, never mind fifteen minutes. Let’s forget for a second the absurd notion that there are computer-deficient people who would have to try to figure out how to program in the new pay-per-use code on their stereo system without scrambling their pre-programmed radio stations and frying their speakers. How many people would really be willing to pay for pay-per-use music if given the choice? I know I wouldn’t! $7.95 for ten plays? Screw that! I’ll pay $19.95 for the full version and listen to it until the plastic melts down inside the CD player!

Of course, this is just the latest brainstorm in pay-per-use ideas already available to the general public. The classic is the pay-per-view movie channels. DirecTV and other digital satellite systems have made PPV so accessible now that it is now cheaper to watch a movie on DSS than it does to go to a theatre or even rent a movie. PPV has spread to the Internet, where adult subscription sites are using every trick in the book to lure people to their sites.

Anyone have Network Associates’ latest VirusScan program? If you purchased Microsoft’s Windows 98 Plus program you got it for free, but you can get it as low as $10 at some warehouse stores. Now, they offer six free downloads of their software. You have to pay for the rest.

Will pay-per-use sell? Depends on the product. Pay-per-view movies and specials will no doubt continue because of their unique appeal to the consumer. But beyond that? I believe that we’re too stingy to allow every aspect of our lives to go into pay-per-use mode. Why should DirecTV users pay $3 per day to see "Days Of Our Lives" when they can set their VCRs to tape the soap for free off regular broadcast channels? Why should I pay $10 for a virus-check program if I could only update the information for the first six months for free when others are charging $40 for the whole program and update the information for free as many times as I need to?

What it all boils down to is a bunch of corporate suits trying to milk every nickel and dime out of consumers without one shred of rational thought behind it. If the corporate suits want to really crack down on bootleg merchants, the first thing they need to do is get rid of this concept of "pay-per-use." Try treating customers as human beings instead of numbers on some fiscal spreadsheet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for outright bootlegging of merchandise, but at the same time, I don’t believe that the average consumer needs to pay through the nose over and over again. That won’t kill bootlegging - it’ll only make it stronger.

Monday, July 13, 1998

Week of 07/13/1998

OOPS! I’m Sorry! Did I destroy your life?
How Media Recklessness Destroys Journalism
- by David Matthews 2

Imagine, if you will, being accused of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The press plasters your name and face all over the land. Coworkers stare. Your boss wants you to quietly resign from your job. Your neighbors want you to move out. Everyone wants you dead.

One little problem - you didn’t do what you were accused of!

Truth be told, you’re an upstanding individual who would blanche at the thought of doing something as horrific as the crimes you’re accused of. But that doesn’t matter now. Public opinion has branded you a criminal.

Now suppose that the finger-pointer was the media. What does the media say after they have wrongly destroyed your life?

Oops! Was that your life we just destroyed? Oh, so sorry. Nothing personal, huh? After all, we’re just doing our jobs.

There is a standing myth that anything said on television or the newspapers or the Internet is God’s honest truth. Journalists are expected to be these perfect observers of the world, bound by some divine pact that what they report is supposed to be completely accurate, truthful, and unbiased. I suppose that would be so, if journalists were all robots.

Unfortunately, the medium journalists operate in is largely driven by factors that do not include accuracy or honesty. Rather, journalists work for publishers and production companies, who are driven in the quest for ratings and market share. They live for instant gratification, and thrive on headlines. Sometimes, those factors conflict with concepts like honesty and accuracy.

Case in point is the Cable News Network. CNN has spent eight months investigating a story worthy of its new joint venture with Time Magazine called CNN Newsstand. The story was that the US military used nerve gas to execute those members of the military who deserted during the Vietnam War. Eight months of research, brought together by both CNN and Time, and narrated by veteran reporter Peter Arnett. The scandal, dubbed Operation Tailwind, was the premier story for CNN Newsstand and made headlines around the world.

Problem was, it didn’t happen.

The story turned out to be a whole string of speculations and unsubstantiated reports. CNN even had to hire outside experts to examine the information to check the verification of the story after serious complaints from the US Department of Defense. They too found that the story had very little substantive proof to back up their claims that the military would execute deserters with nerve gas.

The story soon became the scandal that gave CNN a bloody nose. Three producers were fired, and one resigned. Arnett had to prove to the CNN executives that his only contribution to the story was lending his voice to narrate the segments. No doubt if he was any more involved he would have also joined the producers in the unemployment line.

But worse yet, CNN had to do the most absolutely disgraceful thing they ever did in their twenty-plus years of operation - they had to issue a retraction. Oh, the horrors of it all!

The CNN Tailwind scandal was just the tip of the iceberg in a series of inquiries into journalistic integrity as suddenly reporters and even columnists realized that their bosses were looking over every article published, verifying every story, making sure every "T" is dotted and every "I" is crossed.. and terminating those whom they felt didn’t pass the test. (And if you weren’t paying attention, you would have missed the mistake I intentionally made.)

Meanwhile, self-styled reporters such as Internet journalist Matt Drudge are gaining popularity by reporting on Washington figures in the same manner as Hollywood gossip columnists. Drudge’s success online has turned him into a media curiosity, earning him his own show on Rupert Murdock’s Fox News Network. His trademarked fedora and super-serious demeanor cultivate images of the way news used to be reported in the forties and fifties. I almost expect him to start off his news with "Good evening Mister and Missus America and all the ships at sea." Drudge considers himself to be the next Walter Winchell, although after watching his show on Fox News, he would be a lot closer in comparison to Geraldo Rivera.

What is lacking, however, in the discussion of media events is the concept of consequences. Journalistic objectivity often theory often takes a back seat to media reality, as the quest for ratings and the drive to come up with something new and exclusive to get audience attention take precedence.

Imagine what a reporter has to go through just to earn that paycheck. You’re pushed by deadlines to provide something that will appeal to the masses. Most of the time, you’re running stories that aren’t really big, but you’re just waiting for that big shot; that one chance to hit the limelight. Then, suddenly, word comes down from the suits that they like your ongoing investigation of a big story. They think it has merit. They think it will bring ratings. They want it on the air tonight. What? Its not ready? No, the suits don’t want to hear its not ready. You’ve been working on it for weeks on their dime. It had better be ready, or they’ll kill it and your one shot at being a network anchor.

How can someone regain their name after being dragged through the mud by the media? It’s not easy. Just ask Richard Jewell. That man had his name tarnished because a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution heard that Jewell was a possible suspect in the Olympic Park bombing. But even as the eyes of the international media descended on Jewel, I warned against such a rush to judgment. Jewell was wrongly persecuted by the media for no other reason than to quench the thirst of a blood-hungry audience.

More than at any time, the public needs to hold the media to the standards of excellence and accuracy that they proclaim. They need to take in every news report with a grain of salt, and be ever careful when the factual information ends and the sheer speculation and outright editorializing begins on the part of the reporter.

In many ways, the media created people like Matt Drudge, just as politics created commentators such as myself. Both were created from deficiencies in their respective institutions. But there are significant differences between commentaries and journalism. The journalists are supposed to report the news, while commentators react to the news. Those within the media who do not know the difference between the two should stick to commentaries and divorce themselves from the field of journalism.

Monday, July 6, 1998

Week of 07/06/1998

The Little Things I Miss..
An introspective
- by David Matthews 2

When it comes to changes, there are plenty of things that I am excited about. I can talk volumes about computer changes, the scope of the Internet, the changes in politics, the changes in society and the economy..

And yet, for all the changes, I find that there are some things that are disappearing that I liked. Not grand things, mind you. Nothing earth-shattering. Just the little things that sort of made life bearable. Here are a few of them:

  • I miss getting good mail. Most of the time when I get mail, it’s junk mail. I don’t know why people think I have a home mortgage, but I’m not interested in seeing refinancing ads printed on check stock and mailed out in enveloped made to look like tax rebates. Of course, they’re just the latest trend in groups who want me to give them money that I don’t have for things that I don’t need. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a letter from my adopted brother/best friend in New Hampshire. He doesn’t ask for money. He just asks for advice or ideas, or gives me advice or ideas. That’s easier to give out than money. Other than that, I usually get bills and offers to renew magazines seven months before their year-long subscriptions run out.
  • Everyone’s asking me for money. My cat is now charging me for the time he spends with me. Standard rate is now for five pets on the head, two scratches behind his ears, and one rub under the chin. It costs extra if I want to pick him up and hold him for one minute. Fortunately, I get back at him by charging him for each can of cat food and each time I clean his litter box. It all balances out, which is more than what I can say for some of the other groups demanding money from me.
  • I miss getting cards for my birthday and Christmas. I used to send cards out, and there are a few folks I still send cards to. But when it comes to my birthday, I’ll be lucky if the only card I get comes from my insurance representative who wants to wish me a happy birthday and remind me that my semi-annual payment is due.
  • I still remember when stamps used to cost a quarter. I don’t know why they keep raising the prices. My bills don’t arrive any faster, and according to the people I send payments to, the checks are arriving later and later. Something’s not right there.
  • It’s sort of sad that the whole purpose of electronic mail was to get information through faster, and yet the majority of E-mail I get from people keep saying they don’t have time to chat because they’re busy doing things. It’s rather discouraging that the only advantage of E-mail is to blow people off faster. I suppose I should be thankful for at least getting something from them. Most of the time, I’m sending out E-mail to people whom I’ll be lucky if I get a reply at all.
  • I remember when taking part in discussion groups like bulletin boards and mailing lists used to mean people discussing the topic of the group. Nowadays, the only mailing list I subscribe to is deluged with people who are nitpicking about grammar and spelling, and spending time engaging in insulting E-mails between each other until they are forced to drop off the list. Okay, so not everyone in the mailing list have automatic spelling and grammar checkers on their E-mail programs, and not every member of the mailing list is a best-selling novelist with the proofreading fanaticism of an English professor during finals. At least they’re trying to contribute something to the mailing list, which is more than the bulk of members who simply read the responses and don’t contribute for fear they might be treated like a stevedore visiting Tiffany’s straight from the job site.
  • Remember when there used to be music on the radio with the occasional commercial interruption? Now when I listen to the radio, I have to put up with these endlessly lame commercials with the occasional song interruption. It doesn’t even matter if I change the station, because they all seem to run the commercials at the exact same time! And if they aren’t running commercials, the DJ is blathering on like a love-struck groupie about some band that’s coming to town in six months, their latest release, and what they were doing with their lives when they first heard the group play in some college bar. The radio used to make my drive home bearable. Now it just adds to the stress. If there is ever a reason to have auto makers install cassette and CD players as standard equipment for all vehicles, I can’t think of a better one.
  • I remember when a thunderstorm was just a brief interruption from outdoor activity. Now, if you listen to the radio or watch local TV stations, it’s a major catastrophe. Tornado season is over, but every little flash of lightning is now sending people to storm shelters. The term "shell-shock" comes to mind when I hear this meteorological overkill at work.
  • I remember a time when a person’s religious beliefs were their own. The fact that you believed in something that kept you getting out of bed in the morning was just fine and dandy. Now the religious wrong want everything in the universe to reflect their particular beliefs. The best bumper sticker I heard of best summed up my feelings towards this trend: "Pro-life? Then get one and leave mine alone!" I have got to find where they sell those bumper stickers.
  • There used to be a big difference between urban and rural areas. Now, it seems that urban sprawl is about as much of a constant as the Dow Jones Stock Market. People wonder how urban sprawl happens. It’s no big secret. People who are fed up about all the problems with the city are moving into the neighboring small towns because they have all the quaint things that they don’t see in the urban and suburban areas. Then they start complaining that these quaint rural areas don’t have the 24-hour supermarket and the local mega-mall. So all the conveniences of urban and suburban life start moving in to meet customer demand, which acts as a sirens call for more people to leave the suburban areas into these areas. More people mean more needs, more needs means more urban and suburban goodies. Next thing you know, the town goes from "unincorporated" into "metropolitan." Folks have to realize that you can’t have the best of city life without the worst following it. It’s a package deal.

It’s probably unlikely we’ll ever get back those little things that I miss, but I guess that is the whole point. If only the conservatives can understand that.