|(posted Wednesday, July 31)|
|Shrum Shellacked Robert Shrum's " Varnish Remover" column purports to critique the presidential media campaign. Self-described as a "leading Democratic media consultant," is he the most objective observer you could find?|
| Peaceable Correspondent|
The name "Committee of Correspondence" caused me some trouble in 1960. I was then editor of a new publication out of Cambridge, Mass., called The Committee of Correspondence Newsletter. It was mainly an outlet for the academic side of the peace movement. A few months into our endeavor and following an editorial in Life magazine blasting us, we were notified that the name "Committee of Correspondence" was the property of a ladies' group somewhere. The ladies wrote us a polite, but firm, letter requesting that we stop using the name. Being peaceable, my board of editors suggested that we change the name.
I trust the ladies have retired their claim to the historic name, and that you have had no such threats. You certainly wouldn't get any from my old friends.
| Let Love Rule|
How about letting parents supervise their own children's exploration of the Net (" Speech and Spillover," by Eugene Volokh)? Do we want parents doing the parenting, or do we want the federal government to do it for us? Aren't parents responsible for their own children? It is a sad day in America when parents don't control how their children are being raised.
I am the parent of a 7-year-old boy. I would no sooner allow him free run of a local bookstore (where the Playboy magazines are only partially hidden) than I would of the Internet.
I hope the CDA is repealed. It is a bad idea crafted by lawmakers who must picture the Internet as one big porno shop where a naked human being appears as soon as a modem connects to an Internet Access Provider.
Parents should raise their children. Part of that responsibility is governing what they experience while on the Internet, in a museum, in a bookstore, at a movie, in school, in church, etc.
| Indecent Proposal|
Eugene Volokh focuses on "spillover" in his analysis of the CDA (" Speech and Spillover.") In doing so, he naively accepts the pretensions of the authors and supporters of this oppressive legislation. The use of terms like "indecency," "patently offensive," and "community standards" is what ought to be controversial in this legislation. It is the subjective, after-the-fact determination of what constitutes a felony that gives it such huge anti-democracy potential. The same "indecency" standard at issue in the CDA had a long and inglorious history governing the post office and the delivery of mail under the Comstock Law. That law was used to suppress political activity, ranging from birth control to homosexuality. And it was used as a pretext to open personal mail and employ the contents to ruin lives, as recently as the 1960s.
If the authors of the CDA were only interested in "spillover," the law would specify clearly what level of technical blockade is necessary for a Webmaster to avoid legal jeopardy. To suggest that a total ban, combined with ambiguity concerning what is banned, serves any purpose other than to open a door to tyranny is complete nonsense.
|--Bruce J. Weiers|
| Filtered Vision|
While Eugene Volokh's article (" Speech and Spillover") brings to light some interesting legal concepts, his description of how filtering works in our product, SurfWatch, is inaccurate.
In support of his general argument regarding what he sees as the inability of technical solutions to solve a constitutional problem of "spillover," Volokh mischaracterizes SurfWatch as follows:
"Parents can get software--SurfWatch is one popular brand--that keeps their computers from accessing any place that's on a list of 'dirty' locations, a list selected and frequently updated by the software designers. ... The SurfWatch solution is limited by the software designers' ability to keep up with the latest 'dirty' places. Dozens of Web sites are added daily, and one never knows what will be posted next, even to existing sites and newsgroups. Inevitably some things will be missed. "The purely technological fix, then, is less restrictive than the CDA, but it's also less effective."
Volokh misses these important facts about SurfWatch:
1) SurfWatch uses a variety of methods, not merely a "list" of sites, to filter access to the Internet. It offers both exclusive and inclusive filters, more commonly known as black lists and white lists. Inclusive filters can block 100 percent of the inappropriate sites selected by a user. This means that two of the issues raised by Volokh: the incidental barring of sites that are not, in fact, legally "indecent," and the growth in the number of Web sites around the world, are directly addressed by our product, which actually puts filtering choices in the hands of the user. A SurfWatch user is able to add particular Web addresses to an "inclusive" list of acceptable sites or additional addresses or words to the "blocked" list.
2) SurfWatch includes both a database of sites and a list of words and word associations used by our proprietary pattern matching technology to make filtering decisions. The most important technology in the product allows the filtering of URLs dynamically created by search engines, which effectively stops a child from searching for sexually explicit material in the first place. Tests of SurfWatch in the field have shown that parents and teachers regard this last technology as one of its most valuable features. During the Philadelphia CDA trial, a Department of Justice expert witness, who originally testified that he had been able to search for, and find, sexually explicit Internet sites that SurfWatch did not block, revealed under cross-examination by the CIEC attorney that he had conducted his initial searches without the SurfWatch program. He admitted: "SurfWatch would not have allowed the (initial) search."
3) Of the more than 10,000 sites currently blocked by SurfWatch, more than 30 percent come from outside the United States, and therefore fall beyond the jurisdiction of the CDA. When the effectiveness of the CDA was challenged in court, this was a significant factor. It indicated that many "sex" sites were already out of the jurisdiction of the CDA, and that additional sites could, and would, move offshore to avoid prosecution under the law. At best, the CDA might be 70 percent effective. That's a standard that we in private industry can easily beat. And our track record shows we can do so without seriously undercutting children's access to appropriate content on the Net.
|--Jay Friedland, vice president of marketing, SurfWatch|
| Eugene Volokh Replies:|
I appreciate Jay Friedland's comments, with which I agree to some extent and disagree to some extent.
In describing the filtering systems--and SurfWatch was given just as a leading example--I did, in some measure, oversimplify them. Some simplification is necessary for space reasons, and as I discuss below, I chose to focus on what I thought would be the most legally significant measures. Still, I should have made clearer that the "list of dirty sites" model is only (in my view) one of the most useful alternative approaches: There can be other shielding mechanisms also, such as key word filtering, a list of clean sites, a list of "dirty-site" patterns (e.g., alt.sex.* rather than just a list of all the alt.sex newsgroups), a list of dirty sites editable by each parent, and more.
Which features SurfWatch and other filters currently provide isn't even specifically the issue: As my discussion of the hypothetical self-rating requirement suggests, the question is what less restrictive alternatives are possible, whether or not they are currently implemented in the most popular products. I thank Friedland for calling the readers' attention to my oversimplification, and apologize for any misunderstanding it may have caused about the features that SurfWatch supports.
Nonetheless, the reason I didn't devote space to the other models is that I believe the two models I discussed--the dirty-site list and the self-rating requirement--will be the most relevant to the court's analysis. It seems to me extremely unlikely that the court will view the other methods as suitable "less restrictive alternatives."
Parents' ability to edit the list of blocked sites is a valuable feature, but it certainly doesn't eliminate the problem of some indecent material remaining available to children; keeping up with new dirty sites is even harder for parents than for the software designers. Likewise, key word filtering, like the list of dirty sites (or site patterns), will still involve some spillover--some indecent Web sites or indecent newsgroup conversations won't contain the key words. One could diminish this spillover by having a huge list of prohibited key words, but this will radically lower the product's utility, because it risks excluding so many innocent sites that what remains will be much less useful to the child.
A pure list-of-clean-sites approach--where a child is allowed access to only the limited list of allowed sites--might almost entirely shield children from indecent material. (I say "almost" because even with the limited-list model, there's still some risk of children getting access, for instance, when they visit friends whose computers don't use the blocking software.) But this shielding involves blocking children from a truly vast amount of non-indecent material that hasn't yet been screened for the clean-sites list. Again, it buys protection only at the cost of making the program much less useful, especially where older children are involved. If the compelling government interest is in shielding children from indecency while still allowing them access to non-indecent matter--and I believe the court will indeed accept this as a compelling interest, though some commentators may disagree--then these alternatives just won't do a perfect job of serving that interest.
They might, of course, still do a pretty good job. SurfWatch and its cousins are doubtless very valuable to consumers; I hope I've never suggested the contrary.
Moreover, as my article mentioned, the courts might well conclude that some spillover of indecent material must be tolerated, that it's better to let some such matter remain available to children than to block all such matter from adults. This is why my article predicted that the court will probably indeed strike down the CDA, due in large measure to the feasibility of fairly good (though imperfect) technological alternatives.
But the feasible technological alternatives, at least as they appear today, would not completely eliminate the spillover problem. The CDA plus those technological fixes would provide somewhat more shielding than just those fixes alone. And, as the original article concluded, this means that "[u]ltimately ... the justices will have to make a hard choice: sacrifice some shielding of children in order to protect grownups, or sacrifice some access by grownups in order to shield children."
| Ethnic Stew|
What does it say about your attitude toward your readership if terms like "Japanese names" and "Chinese connection" slip from Paul Krugman's keyboard and past your editors described as "exotic trimmings" (" How Copper Came a Cropper")?
Perhaps many of your readers do not have Japanese names or Chinese connections (though Krugman, as a Stanford professor, cannot be oblivious to such audiences). But won't you at least credit them with being cosmopolitan enough to be able to read of events in Asia without finding them strange?
| Crash Course|
James Glassman ("Committee of Correspondence: What is Wall Street Saying?") claims that "[t]he price of a share of stock represents the value--as it's perceived by investors today--of a company's expected stream of earnings in the future."
Does he know anyone who actually thinks of stock that way anymore? Nowadays, people buy stock because they want to sell it to someone else at a higher price. Quickly. Most of the stocks that have realized the greatest gains are small cap stocks that won't see dividends for years, which is too far off for many investors.
Listen to the way people talk about the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Everyone knows that the Dow increased from 2000 to 5500 in a few years. How many people know how much the average earnings or dividends increased in that time? Probably not more than a handful.
When stocks return to their "fair value" as defined by James Glassman, the event will be known as the crash of 1997.
| Taking Stock|
In his closing statement in last week's "Committee of Correspondence" (" What is Wall Street Saying?") Herb Stein says the "discussion leaves [him] less comfortable about the stock market than [he] was but more comfortable about the economy." If that's true, the discussion was a failure. After all, the stock market is nothing more than a reflection of investors' collective perception of the value of the public economy. While that perception may diverge from real economic conditions in the short term, in the long run, they are always closely related. Therefore, one who is optimistic about the health of the American economy should also be feeling good about the long-term prospects of the domestic exchanges.
Robert Schiller's prediction that there is a two-thirds chance that the stock market will decline by 40 percent or more over the next 10 years is ludicrous. Not that it can't happen, but a shock like that won't occur just because Schiller's charts say it's time; it must be connected to some real-life economic deterioration, like the United States saw in the '70s, or like Japan has experienced in this decade. I haven't heard any compelling arguments suggesting that such a decline in the U.S. economy is imminent; certainly, Schiller didn't offer one.
In fact, the long-term prospects for the American economy appear to be exceptionally promising, largely due to innovations of the high-tech companies that even the generally optimistic James Cramer believes are overvalued in the present market. These companies trade at a premium because of investors' collective belief that we are in the early stages of a profound shift in the economy, and that the companies providing the technologies that are driving those changes will profit handsomely.
| No Olympic Event|
I have to take issue with Michael Wood's assertion in his review of Trainspotting (" Live and Let Die") that "wading through [Irvine Welsh's novel] requires [a] near-Olympic effort." Bollocks! It's not Finnegan's Wake. Trainspotting is a book written in dialect and slang, and it isn't hard to follow at all. For you American wimps, the publisher has even included a glossary!
Welsh has a remarkable ear for dialogue and dialect. One of the most impressive tricks he pulls off is to give each of the characters a sufficiently individual voice, so that after a while, the identity of the speaker simply leaps out at the reader. This, despite the fact that virtually no part of the book is written in "standard" English.
"Olympic" is a word best left to athletes. Trainspotting is a fabulous novel. Read it, and don't be scared off by nonsense.
| Out of Context|
In his article about USA Today (" We are Pragmatic"), Carlin Romano asserts that in its direct delivery of facts and opposing views, USA Today provides the people with all that is needed for solving our common problems. Yet, in his commentary, Romano manages to succeed partially at providing precisely what USA Today utterly fails to give its readers--context. A debate consisting of the opposing views of only the loudest and most entrenched factions is not really a debate, but a war of words in which ideas are exploited solely for their value as weapons. I am doubtful that the framers of the Constitution, fearful of the uninformed and unreasoned opinions of mob rule as they were, would choose USA Today over the New York Times.
In our fractious and complex world, we require more than simple facts and opinions if we are to arrive at workable solutions. We require the context, historical memory, and give-and-take of reasoned debate that only thoughtful writers, newspapers like the Times , and hopefully, a journal like S LATE, can provide.
| Out of the Running|
Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne should be included in your poll (" The Horse Race")!
He is on the ballot in more states than the Reform Party (Perot/Lamm), and he consistently outruns it in most Internet polls. According to your pundits, Dole is dead in the water, but you still keep the race a lesser-of-two-or-three-evils debate. The Libertarian Party and Browne offer a real alternative to politics as usual. It appears that the major media and their pundits are going to downplay Browne as a real candidate. The clear message is that the political system is fixed. Alternative candidates cannot get their message to the people, unless they happen to be billionaires and buy enough commercial time to advertise.
Let all the candidates be heard by the people. Let all the candidates debate head to head. Then let the people voice their opinions by voting.
|--Thomas Tedford Jr.|
| Snipers' Alley?|
S LATE's "In Other Magazines" section loses this week. It's usually an entertaining and cynical critique of other magazines. This week the column merely reports the content. Is this because the other magazines are particularly good this week, or is this a definite decision to back off in order to avoid retaliatory mass sniping at S LATE?
|--Richard A. Lethin|
" Doodlennium" now claims to be "interactive." I have to laugh. I fail to see how being able to get another image by clicking on part of the comic is interactive.
Why not add some truly interactive sides to S LATE? Perhaps you could hook up one of those programs that simulates human conversation. I recognize that computers aren't nearly advanced enough yet to simulate actual interaction, but why not take advantage of what is available today?
|No Women's Issue Latest issue--one woman contributor. Even Playboy and Esquire have more.|
|Upside Down" The Compost" should be in reverse chronological order--just like a real compost heap (to keep within the metaphor and all).|
| Paradigm Slacker?|
Reading Jim Holt's glib oversimplification of Thomas Kuhn's ideas in " Beauty's Truth" makes me wonder whether Holt has ever even read Kuhn. If he has, does he have the scientific and historical background to understand Kuhn's work? It seems rather common now to go on about how rotten Kuhn's ideas were based almost entirely on what others have said about him. Readers and critics alike have consistently misunderstood him.
I'm not trying to portray his work as perfect, but Holt does a grave disservice to Kuhn's ideas and writings. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still a remarkable book, well worth reading if you have the basic science education to grasp it.
| SLATEIs Doomed|
The power of Microsoft notwithstanding, it's very difficult for one of your regular readers (me) to imagine paying for the content you provide. When the novelty and clat of the site wears off, I'm not sure if what you offer, Netheads won't be able to find elsewhere for free.
Michael Kinsley asserts that paying for S LATE and other such "serious" journalism makes them "self supporting" and thus more free. Please! Name one successful print venture that offers the kind of content you're planning to offer and isn't at least somewhat beholden to either its advertisers or its corporate sponsors. The kind of freedom Kinsley desires ain't gonna happen, and no amount of sophistry will change that.
|Presidential Porking David Plotz's premise (" Could Clinton Cheat?") falls miserably flat with the assertion that Clinton could not get away with committing adultery while in office because "the press would report it." Wrong! He has committed many crimes other than adultery since entering office, and the press has not reported them with any degree of seriousness. If Clinton were to run around, the mainstream press would fail to act, as they always do, in order to protect and promote this sleazeball liar we somehow allowed into the White House. If he weren't the president, he wouldn't be able to obtain the security clearance to enter the building. Neither would many of his staff.|
| Endurance Test|
If the opportunities for President Clinton to cheat were nearly as difficult to come by as David Plotz would have us believe (" Could Clinton Cheat?"), Bill Clinton would volunteer to be a one-term president.
Clinton may be willing to sacrifice for his office, but there are limits to any man's endurance.
|Adulterers, Please Apply If we can agree that Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy had affairs (" Could Clinton Cheat?" by David Plotz), but that Presidents Hoover and Nixon did not, can we also agree that adultery should be mandatory for presidential candidates?|
|The Mile-High Club You left out one painfully obvious scenario for a plausible presidential adulterous interlude (" Could Clinton Cheat?" by David Plotz) in 1996: Air Force One. Did you leave it out on purpose?|
I won't believe that you folks have run out of worthwhile material this early in your experiment. Therefore I have to assume there's some brilliance in the " Bull Street Journal" by Michael Gerber, Jonathan Schwarz, and Robert Weisberg that I'm missing. Is it a roman clef?
Please explain why this was included in your otherwise interesting production. (I'll let the presidential-philandering article slide.)
| Fat Chance|
Please help us out. We are going insane arguing over the missing word in the following phrase from the Fats Waller song that was SLATE's first theme song:
"I've searched the universe over, from to Dover."
The disputed word starts out with three syllables. We know that. Phonetically, they sound like "whack-a-nak," but we are killing each other over what the fourth syllable of that word is.
If anyone out there has an idea, please share it with us.
|The editors reply: We believe Waller is referring to the Canadian city of "Wachnow, Sask." Is there a Waller scholar in the house?|
|Our tech guy answers your questions.|
|Welcome to another edition of "Ask Bill Barnes," where our motto is, "Ask and ye shall receive," though specifically what ye shall receive is subject to our discretion. Each week I use this space to answer some of the mail sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the process try to entertain, edify, and to otherwise occupy valuable electronic real estate. Nontechnical mail can be sent to email@example.com. Either I or my able assistant (eventually) answer all the mail we get, and we get a lot!|
The tech desk is astounded by the popularity of our printable edition , which many readers use to read S LATE on the computer screen with their word processors and never bother to print. These innovators should know that our offline reading service, which will make offline use more convenient, is coming soon.
| The Bookmark's the Spot|
I just read Robert Wright's article about aliens landing on Earth ("Interdependence Day") and I'd like to get the news out to my friends, but I want to take advantage of the Internet Explorer feature that allows you to create a desktop icon for a Web site. I just mail the icon, and then anyone with Internet Explorer can doubleclick on the icon, and jump directly to "The Earthling" column.
But there's a problem. Because URLs for S LATE articles change when the pieces are sent to "The Compost," this desktop icon clocks out within a week. If only S LATE's composted articles retained their original names ... my friends would be relieved to find that the arrival of aliens may not be so bad, even if they--my friends--don't read their mail till next week.
|It was our intention that readers bookmark a column like " The Earthling" and return to it week after week for the latest "Earthling." But your point is a good one, so we might change the way we do business. Then, of course, we should expect to hear complaints from all the people who are happily bookmarking the column. Life can be so binary at times.|
|ASP Backwards Responding to my column of a few weeks ago where I explained that our .asp pages are ActiveX Server Pages using a pre-release Microsoft technology that allows us to do some cool things, a reader, mysteriously identified only as "RMH," replied:|
|This is an EVIL and annoying thing about M$. Rather than use existing open technology, reinvent the wheel, break people's software, release some of the details shrouded with NDAs, and call it "innovation."|
This sort of business plan can't work too much longer. I think S LATE should stick with Perl and be done with it.
|Thanks for the comment, but for now, we'll continue to "innovate."|
| The Travails of E-mail|
My first e-mail issue of S LATE arrived without incident. I was able to launch/view it in Word 6.0, and it looked good. This weekend, I received the next issue (did you send one which I didn't receive? Perhaps July 19?), and all I got was a lot of symbols (binary?), not a file that was usable in Word, as the previous one had been.
I have changed nothing on my end. Will I receive a good copy in the future? Please let me know.
| Scheduled E-mail Delivery|
I'm getting S LATE by e-mail. Great idea, but since I don't know exactly when it's arriving, my modem gets tied up downloading it.
Can I suggest that you e-mail it at a time that suits readers? I would ideally like to get it on Saturdays or Sundays, since my phone bill is lower on those days. 400K at 9.6K baud is quite a while for me. (My use of a 9.6K modem explains why I download by e-mail rather than surfing online!)