On creeping censorship, the chilling effect, and reading documents you sign

Ars Technica has an article about a dentist’s office requring you sign over the copyright of any statements you make about them online before you may receive treatment. There is apparently a company that is dedicated to making this a regular feature of all of our health-care encounters.

Ars’ dissection of why the contract cannot fulfill it’s stated purpose is spot on: the dentist’s office says the contract is supposed to prevent “competitors and disgruntled employees” from posting fraudulent reviews–but competitors certainly will not have signed the contract, so how could it govern them? Disgruntled employees might well have signed such a contract, but given the semi-anonymous nature of posting information to the web in this day and age, how could the office make the determination that a particular poster was a former employee in order to request that the statements be removed?

Whether as a basis for litigation–probably a poor one–or a basis for intimidation–perhaps an effective one, assuming people actually read the document–this is pernicious and vile.

The interesting question, of course, is how many people bother to actually read, much less understand the document. If the document simply said:

I allow the doctor to censor anything I say about him online that he doesn’t like.

I bet that there would be a lot more people refusing to sign. But when you start to put things in “legalese”, and especially when the documents tend to be long, and the subject is abstruse, people tend to check out–even when the content of the document is important. I mean, when you signed your home mortgage, did you check that the interest rate was properly recorded, or did you just assume that the bank wouldn’t get it wrong?

The only other point I would make is that, truly, I think it’s better to walk away than sign, even if you have reasons to believe that the document is toothless.

At a most basic level, it’s an ethical thing. If you sign a document with no intention of conforming to the agreement it represents, you’re lying, plain and simple. Casual lies like that are, IMHO, corrosive to the soul.

At a more practical level, even if an agreement is ultimately toothless, that doesn’t mean you mightn’t find yourself having to spend money and time to defend yourself. I have witnessed this second-hand, as a lawsuit that was, for all intents and purposes, unwinnable, nonetheless drained time and money from a company (with whom Ironic Design has a business relationship) that they could have used more productively.

Commencing The Dark Tower

One of the writers on tor.com elected to take on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. The significant difference is that where most of the posters on Tor are doing “re-reads”–guiding others through the books–this is a read-along, so you get to watch as someone else encounters the book for the first time.

Of course, I could do that just fine by myself–I’d never read it, though I remember Patrick talking about it when the first volume was finally widely-released in a trade paperback format in ’88–so I figured what the hell, I’d follow along. Unlike my recent plunge into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, though, I decided I would take advantage of my local library. I don’t necessarily see these as being evergreen re-reads.

I finished The Gunslinger in short order. It is interesting to realize how spare the writing is compared to most of King’s work. Some people have suggested that this is because it was such an early story, or because it was originally serialized–basically, because King couldn’t get away with over-writing.

Now, personally, I do not get as annoyed as some with King’s prose, or the length of his books, or even the stuff that could have been cut–I don’t find the text offensive to read, so it doesn’t outright bother me, and it’s not like his stories are generally laden down with anything as awkward and didactic as John Galt’s radio broadcast.

(Ask me about the Kevin Anderson/Brian Hebert “Dune” books, and you will get an entirely different answer, Their individual Wikipedia articles are better prose and better stories. But a lot of people think that about Frank Herbert’s sequels, too.)

Anyway, I think, actually, that it is a conscious choice on King’s part, though only the remainder of the series will prove me right or wrong. I think it’s intended to be a reflection of the character, who is himself a somewhat spare individual. The atmosphere isn’t that of a horror novel, really. It brings me to mind, for more reasons than one, of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren. Which I suppose I should get back to one day, though I already read the ending.

Anyway, I fear that the whole series really isn’t going to last long, unless the later books are more true to King’s prose form and take longer than these first two are.

Live the questions

…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet

Via

The Middleman

So, to counter the extremely negative review I just did, as well as the one I’m about to do, from the department of things that I would like to recommend: The Middleman

I wrote about The Middleman a few years ago, shortly–very shortly–before it got cancelled. The ABC Family network it was broadcast on never even re-broadcast the original episodes–I saw two and three quarters episodes, and that was it.

At some point, I noticed that Netflix had the DVDs of that lone season, so I put them in the queue. They finally came up.

I was actually kind of worried that Anne wouldn’t enjoy watching them–they’re low-budget and comic-book-y and full of references from a subculture in which she doesn’t generally have a lot of interest–but that turned out to not be the case.

The remind me, more than anything else, of the similarly short-lived live-action version of The Tick, with Patrick Warburton–which is one of the few things I’ve ever bothered to purchase on DVD–which includes the best line ever written: “You’re not needy, you’re wanty.” But that’s another show.

Anyway, if you think that the idea of a show that would throw in off-hand references to Dune, hentai (on ABC Family? How did they slip that one it?), music-industry lawsuits against consumers and Batman & Robin, you should consider this as a fun way to spend a few hours.

The Interpreter

I caught a chunk of this movie while channel surfing a week or two ago–from about 15 minutes in for about 20 minutes–that seemed pretty decent, so I TiVO’d it.

I am not all that discriminating a movie viewer–which is funny, because I don’t bother to watch them very often, either–and I have to say, this was horrible.

I mean, it would be cruel to suggest that this movie actually killed Sidney Pollack, but I was thinking just that an awful lot, especially toward the end.

Sadly, IMDB suggests that, in fact, it may have been Pollack himself who was responsible for some large part of its horribleness:

The original twist ending involved Silvia Broome having made up the idea of the assassination in order to blackmail a political official from causing genocide in Africa. Although director Sydney Pollack signed on for that draft it was one of the first things he had changed. This in turn changed a lot of the structure of the script so Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian were brought on to doctor it up.

About the only overused thriller trope that it didn’t indulge in was having the principals sleep with one another; everything else was straight out of “Thrillers for Dummies”, and big wodges of the dialog landed with the wet thud of a movie critic jumping off a building in despair.

Thinking further on it, I think the thing that made me give the film a chance was the fact that the bit I stumbled across included Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat”.

But Tonto he was smarter
And one day said kemo sabe
Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I’m going out to sea

The pop music of my youth isn’t getting rehashed

TL;DR: You kids get off my lawn!

From 1981-1986, I was a devoted listener of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. We were living in (West) Germany at the time, and that broadcast on AFN was a primary means of keeping in touch with music back in the ‘States–though MTV was rising to power back home, we didn’t have it there, and besides, the alternative was hearing 99 Luftballons again (remember, Nena was German, and (rare for a Continental act) had a hit in the US. It was inescapable, and to this day that song still makes me cringe).

Anyway, I listened all the time, and with such devotion that I could remember well enough where a song I liked had been the week prior so that I could be ready to record it when it came on the next week. I have a vivid memory of being at an airshow at Ramstein AFB in 1983 (incidentally there’s a site with pictures from the airshow one of which is the sort of plane my Dad was flying out of Ramstein at the time) with an AIWA “walkman” that had both a radio and the ability to record, ignoring the actual airshow because I really wanted to tape a copy of Little Red Corvette (though, truthfully, I can’t quite make the chronology match up–surely it didn’t take 6 months after LRC’s release for it to make it up the charts).

(In fact, Billboard posts their charts, and has records going back to the ’70s, including that week, and looking at the top 10 leads me to suspect that the song I was trying to record was Stevie Nicks’ Stand Back, which, interestingly, has Prince performing on it, albeit without credit, and was partially inspired by Little Red Corvette).

Other acts I remember from that time–Hell, from just that year: Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Hi, Chet!), Naked Eyes, Taking Heads (_Burning Down the House_, obviously), Tears for Fears, Michael Jackson, David Bowie (_Let’s Dance_, of course), Thomas Dolby, Men at Work, Culture Club, Duran Duran, The Police, Eurythmics

Anyway, one of the biggest acts of that time period were Hall & Oates. Every time they had (yet another) single on ATF, there would be the recitation of how they had had more songs chart in the Top-40 than any other duo and various other distinctions. I could probably have recited the stats at the time.

So I was in Whole Foods the other day and the in-store sound system played Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That, followed by the Bee Gees’ Night Fever. Two songs that, 10 or 15 years ago I might have been embarrassed to admit I like, but now, hey, I’ve already got one foot in the grave, who cares what anyone thinks?

And I realized that as much as I have come to accept that half the pop music acts I hear these days sound like retreads of the ’70s or ’80s, I don’t understand why they seem to choose to rehash the mediocre stuff. I mean, The Strokes sound like The Knack, but I don’t understand who would consciously choose to do that? Where are the people who are trying to at least copy the well-crafted pop songs of the period?

Is this the culture of irony eating itself? People choosing to copy the second-tier artists as some sort of commentary?

Enmeshing yourself in the web

One of my long-time students mentioned that she had been away visiting family, and took a yoga class with a local Anusara-Inspired teacher during her trip, and that she had really enjoyed the class.

Now, I’m sure there are yoga teachers out there who so self-assured that they know that if a student doesn’t show up the next week it is obviously an issue on the students part, but I don’t know if I’d enjoy studying with any of them, personally, because I’m not sure I’d be able to fit in the room with their ego.

No, I think most good yoga teachers–and definitely the ones I hang around with–tend to wonder when someone only shows up once, considering whether there’s something they could have done better, to have taught a more compelling class, to have made someone feel more welcome…even as they acknowledge that many if not most of the students they see they will see only once. A serious yoga practice is a practice of constant self-examination and reflection–you don’t get a free pass just because you’ve started to teach; in fact, just the opposite. So you ponder on the people you only see once.

With this in mind, although I didn’t know this teacher personally, I took a moment to look her up on the Anusara website, and found an address, and emailed her just to let her know that she had made an impression. It took me all of maybe two minutes, I got to brighten someone’s day, and I added another strand in the web of my community.

One of the things I love about the Anusara community is that it aspires to be just that: a community. These ties aren’t ties that bind, they’re ties that lift us up, that make our load lighter.

This is what I love to see in live performances

To say that David remakes “Andy Warhol” in this performance is kind of an understatement. I mean, I love the original, but if I wanted to listen to that, well, I’ve got the CD. This is something that lives only on this tour, perhaps only in this moment.

“Andy walking, Andy tired, Andy take a little snooze.”

Christianity and Ayn Rand

Fred Clark comments on an article regarding the incongruous support among the Religious Right for Atlas Shrugged, a novel written by a woman who had nothing but withering scorn for Christianity.

What made me laugh, though, was this comment:

Yeah, that’s always been one thing that boggles me, that folks thinks you can hold a Bible in one hand and a copy of Atlas Shrugged in the other. It’s like they want to hurry American Christianity into it’s final resting place as The First Church of Kicking People When They’re Down. They’ve almost got Christ completely removed from their teachings, he’s just the name on the letterhead you keep for tax purposes.

“The First Church of Kicking people When They’re Down” sounds like something Warren Ellis would have created for Transmetropolitan.

What a difference two years make

A little over two years ago, I wrote a post about my view of the web server software landscape under Linux, concluding with how I’d ended up sticking with Apache despite having tried most of the other reasonable candidates because they all seemed lacking.

It’s interesting in part because I never recorded when I moved that server from Apache to Cherokee (which I had tried to poor results, as noted in the post), which would have been not too very long after I wrote that post. Oh, well.

Anyway, everything ran alright on Cherokee for 18 months or so, but Cherokee wouldn’t let me do per-client bandwidth throttling, which I really needed as Chet’s blog was getting hammered mercilessly by spammers, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to slow them down.

So I switched to nginx, which by now I have a fair amount of experience with, using it for http and imap proxying as well as serving fastcgi apps for other projects. If it weren’t for the decrepit software that Chet and I have been using for blogging for the last couple or three years, everything would have been great (Movable Type–and even its follow-on project Open Melody–has never modernized its low-level infrastructure to allow good support of FastCGI; they’ll tell you they have, but just ask them if you can do XML-RPC–the foundation for remote posting–and watch their reaction).

Still, I’ve made do with a FastCGI shim for Movable Type, and then decided to start looking at WordPress, which I’ve already converted to, and which I think we will get Chet converted to shortly.

Incidentally, I became even happier about having moved to nginx about a week later, when I ran across a blog post from Cherokee’s author, posting a link to a performance comparison that showed Cherokee beating everything else.

Normally, I would just say “great” and move on, but knowing a little bit about nginx, I was surprised at the version being used, as it seemed a little old. And so I did some more research, and found that the article was comparing an up-to-date version of Cherokee to much older versions of other servers, in some cases versions from branches that had long been declared obsolete. Still, it’s not the fault of Cherokee’s author someone at a magazine did a crappy test.

However, when I presented my findings, and asked him to acknowledge the issue, and call for the author of the article to do better:

Alvaro, I understand that it is nice to see your software perform well against its competition, but I would encourage you to dissociate yourself from this comparison, or at least take it upon yourself to point out that there were some things that may have left your competitors at a disadvantage.

he suggested that he had made any caveats he needed when he said “you shouldn’t expect an extensive, in-depth benchmark” from the “very well written article”, though he did note that “the benchmark results are still fairly representative IMHO.“, and when pressed, said that he didn’t think the results would have changed with more recent versions of the other software.

It took a while to get the taste out of my mouth. I guess I still haven’t, given that I’m posting this.

Anyway, up with nginx.

Zero History

Done. Enjoyable. There’s a sense of humor in these three books that I don’t remember from any of his prior novels, though it’s been an admittedly long time since I’ve re-read any of them.

That said, the distinguishing feature of the trilogy begun with Pattern Recognition–and Zero History make sure you know that it’s truly a trilogy, with the three books tied quite firmly together–seems to be that when I’m done with them, I don’t feel like I’ve really been presented with anything new. More like I’ve been given a tour of exotic locales, with an interesting plot to tie them together, and characters who interest me. But it’s a stark contrast between this and, any of the Sprawl books, or even the eschaton presented in the Bridge novels. That’s not bad, but it confounds my expectations somewhat.

Osama Bin Ladin is Dead

And I have to say: “So what?”

As many of the news stories are pointing out, many thought he’d been dead for years.

On a long enough time-line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.1

The question is, are we doing what we need to do to be safer, and considering that large parts of American foreign policy still revolve around shooting at people, I suspect the answer is still, “No.” Considering that large parts of American security theater is ineffective and pointless, I suspect the answer is still, “No.”

As an incidental question, I wonder how many of the Republicans who have, of late, been decrying our involvement in Afghanistan as “Mr. Obama’s War” will now be trying to take credit for OBL getting hit?

1 Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

WordPress, day 3

I finally found something to make me want to wail and gnash my teeth.

Having exported the content from Movable Type, I spent some time working on a script to clean up that content–I had made some errors when I move to Movable Type that meant my articles were often not in the format I wanted them to be, so I took the time to correct that, getting everything moved back to its original Textile source, and even converting some things that had started life as hand-written HTML to Textile.

And then I did the import and everything seemed to go well…except.

The WordPress importer seems to have pulled out all “extra” line-feeds, meaning that my posts end up formatted with a lot of line-break tags rather than proper paragraphs.

In the short term, I’ll live with it. In the longer term, I’m probably going to be exporting and then importing this blog into a multi-blog setup, so I can probably do some text-hacking to resolve the issue then.

What worries me is what this means for possibly moving over Chet’s blog. Re-doing his posts that are in Markdown is not in the cards–there’s just too many–and the WordPress export/import format is a wordy mess for trying to generate yourself.

Grrr.

Spook Country

From Pattern Recognition I moved on immediately to Spook Country.

I enjoyed this more the second time through, though if I hear the phrase “locative art” again, I may scream. It’s another one of those ideas that doesn’t seem to have gotten any traction in the last four years, and in the end just served as an annoying distraction from the rest of the book, which I quite enjoyed. It made me look forward to Zero History, which I started yesterday.

Pattern Recognition

Now that Zero History is out, I decided to go back and re-read the prior two Bigend Books.

I first read Pattern Recognition, on a trip to Miami in 2003 just after it came out. At the time, I thought it might be my favorite of William Gibson’s books. Now…well, I still enjoyed it, but it felt a little light on substance. Perhaps it’s that it was trying to posit something changing just a little too close to the present, and as a consquence, it seems more glaring when it misses the mark. The whole idea of the Sekrit Footage, when considered in light of YouTube just doesn’t quite have the resonance it did 8 years ago.

There is something to the dreamy, paranoid quality that the book has that I still find attractive, though this time through I also found some of the text very jarring. A lot of phrases that seemed to me too cutesy or too clever.

Anyway, it’s not like I intend to get rid of it, but I don’t know that I’ll re-read it in fewer than another 8 years.