log (2001/05/18 to 2001/05/24)

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Thursday, May 24, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

A whole bunch of links on UCITA, the proposed new uniform law on software contracts and stuff. Lots of unfavorable stories in the press. RMS says it's bad for Free Software. There's a whole organization that's against it (and here's why). There's also a website in favor of it, and they have a copy of the whole thing.

In general I tend to trust and respect the people who are against it more than I do the people who are apparently for it. On the other hand when I read parts of the thing itself, it sounds more like what the Pro people say it is than like what the Anti people say it is. Probably it's carefully worded just to fool people like me?

Steve linked to The Play-A-Day Center, so for the rest of today's entry I will write a play.

Hm, what's good HTML markup for a play?

Onda: My feathers, my feathers! What have those awful soldiers done with my feathers?

Solange: De Tourneau was here again. He's hidden the feathers under the house, in the mine.

Onda: In the mine? The salt mine?

Solange: The coal mine.

A Soldier enters

Onda: My God!

Solange: Oh, Onda.

Soldier: You ladies will have to come with me.

Onda: My feathers!

Solange: Be a dear boy and help me with this boa-constrictor.

Remember: the eagles aren't particular...

Wednesday, May 23, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Special issue on politics today; buncha political links just happened to show up.

Apparently we won't find out until tomorrow if the Democrats get the Senate back. What fun! I love soap operas.

And speaking of whether or not it matters who controls the Senate, a reader points us to a provocative Reason article on the subject:

Why neither the right nor the left is the real enemy

And from the same magazine, The Widening Marriage Gap: America's New Class Divide. Now these political pundits have been known to twist the numbers, but if they are what he says they are there's some very interesting stuff here.

In other words, if you are a baby about to be born, your best odds are to choose married black parents over unmarried white ones.

(I was going to post this one to Metafilter as my maiden posting, having finally joined; but it looks like they're down today! Did the New York Times link to them about the Kaycee Affair, or something?)

Want to set up a domain that contains a common word that someone else uses as a trademark? Good luck! Aimster's a Cybersquatter, Domain-Name Arbitrators Say:

"Internet users seeing any of the 'AIM' based domain names are likely to think that (Deep's) service, or its Web site, is somehow related to, and affiliated with or sponsored by (AOL), when in fact it is not," the panelists wrote.

Lousy law, IMHO.

Both Debra Hyde and Mark Aster have mentioned Miller v. California in the last week or so, so I thought I'd go off and read it. The whole issue of the Obscenity Exception to the First Amendment intrigues me. Note that what follows is stream-of-consciousness woolgathering; don't expect a well thought out essay (maybe I'll do that later). (For my earlier thoughts on pornography in general, see my earlier thoughts on pornography.)

(Aside: as I mentioned the other day, I think it's really neat that the U. S. Supreme Court is so visible on the Web. They only have a couple of years of decisions on their site, though. Findlaw has a much more complete set. Surpeme Court decisions are a great early form of hypertext; they're always full of references to previous ones, and the Findlaw versions have them fully hyperlinked. There's no excuse anymore for a citizen not to have experience with this stuff.)

Anyway, the case that established the current three-pronged test for obscenity (and therefore for not being protected speech) was apparently Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973 ). The test is (in the case of a state law):

(a) whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The decision in this case replaced older notions about "redeeming social importance" as variously laid out in Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) and Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966) (and celebrated by Tom Lehrer). The earliest case I've looked at that lays out the Obscenity Exception is Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1877).

The thing that puzzles me most, and that I've been mining these decisions for, is why the Court has always held that obscene material is special, and not protected by the First Amendment. The various other exceptions (libel, "fighting words", yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre, and so on) have reasonably obvious (if not always compelling) justifications. But what reasons do these distinguished thinkers have to make an exception for pictures of people screwing?

In the earliest decisions, the Justices are pretty up front about the reasons, although it's also clear that they consider them so obvious as to almost not need stating. In Ex parte Jackson, Justice Field writing for the majority says flatly that these materials are "corrupting", and "are supposed to have a demoralizing influence upon the people".

In Roth, Justice Brennan writing for the court is slightly less direct, and says something rather different. Obscene material, Brennan writes, "is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to the prurient interest." He mentions, but apparently rejects, the notion that obscenity is bad because it leads to corruption or immoral action. For Brennen obscene material goes beyond the pale simply by dealing with sex in a manner appealing to the prurient interest, whether or not it causes any futher effects. Obscenity doesn't have "even the slightest redeeming social importance".

So what's "the prurient interest"? For Brennan, it's simply "having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts". Whoa! If there are any teenage boys in your sample set, that means that any object with at least one curved surface, or any piece of text that mentions a female, appeals to the prurient interest (and is therefore obscenity, and without the slightest social importance).

Justice Harlan, dissenting in Roth, points this out. Even in 1957, society had a great interest in, and tolerated a good deal of, eroticism in various forms. As the years went by this became more and more obvious. But that was the dissent, and history is written by the victors.

By the time of Miller v. California, Justice Burger (writing for the Court) saw no necessity to suggest that obscenity corrupts the viewer, or leads to immoral acts. This is probably because (as, again, various dissenting Justices have pointed out) there is little or no actual evidence for this. The public attitude toward the erotic has become still more positive, so he can hardly condemn anything that simply excites lustful thoughts.

You'd think the logical thing would be to say "OK, we were wrong, there's actually nothing wrong with exciting lustful thoughts, so prurience is OK, so obscenity is OK, and the First Amendment applies after all". But no; instead he updates the notion of prurience so that (maybe) it still applies.

In the Miller decision, Burger defines prurience only in a footnote, where he quotes from the California Penal Code of the time, defining "prurient interest" as "a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion". What a strange combination! Why not digestion? How about respiration? Or numismatism? Why this widening, from Brennan's sex-only exception in Roth to "nudity, sex, or excretion" in Miller? Again, various dissenters note these oddnesses.

If we believed that viewing obscenity damaged the viewer, we might believe an argument that obscenity doesn't deserve full First Amendment protection. But we don't.

If we believed that lustful thoughts were bad, we might believe an argument that obscenity doesn't deserve full First Amendment protection (because it certainly excites lustful thoughts). But we don't.

If we define obscenity as involving "shameful or morbid interest" in something, again we might believe an argument that obscenity doesn't deserve full First Amendment protection.

But what's shameful or morbid about descriptions or depictions of sex? It's shameful primarily because people like make laws against it, so that's pretty circular ("this is illegal because it's terrible, and we know it's terrible because it's illegal"; often used against recreational drugs also). It's not morbid: if there's anything that sex isn't, it isn't morbid. Morbid is "about death", but sex is about life. It leads to life, it enriches life, it requires life.

I need to read lots more of this stuff. Findlaw itself has its own essay about the Obscenity Exception that I want to read. I'm sure there are good books (if you know of any, type 'em into the input box!). But I'm struck, from what I have read, by the general "well, everyone knows this is awful, morbid, unhealthy, slimy, prurient, shameful" tone of those finding for the Exception, and the considerably more reasoned and "what's the big deal?" tone of those arguing against it (sadly often, these are the dissenters).

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are "offensive" to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom of the press. That test would make it possible to ban any paper or any journal or magazine in some benighted place. The First Amendment was designed "to invite dispute," to induce "a condition of unrest," to "create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are," and even to stir "people to anger." The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are "offensive" to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. No greater leveler of speech or literature has ever been designed. To give the power to the censor, as we do today, is to make a sharp and radical break with the traditions of a free society. The First Amendment was not fashioned as a vehicle for dispensing tranquilizers to the people. Its prime function was to keep debate open to "offensive" as well as to "staid" people. The tendency throughout history has been to subdue the individual and to exalt the power of government. The use of the standard "offensive" gives authority to government that cuts the very vitals out of the First Amendment.

-- Justice Douglas, Miller dissent

You tell 'em!

Tuesday, May 22, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

A reader who read yesterday's entry writes:

Thanks for the Fluxx pointer! Love it, and bringing it to the gaming convention this weekend! -pTang

Glad to have helped spread the gospel! And speaking of gospels, another reader writes:

see: kierkegaard, soren / confusion about people and why they do things is never fun, but that's part of the --
--'t know jesus

Which is somewhat cryptic. I hope there's not a bug in the input box! If there was supposed to be stuff between the halves of that message, perhaps the reader could send it again. Otherwise we'll consider it a bit of poetry.

Pursed Lips points to a brave and interesting article about relationships between adults and those not officially adult. I don't necessarily agree with all her conclusions and opinions, but it's nice to see someone writing about the complexities of a subject that current culture is so utterly hysterical about.

More on the Great Kaycee Hoax or whatever it was. There's now another MetaFilter thread, a Yahoo discussion group, and even a FAQ. The Prehensile Tales guy has some reflections on the subject, including surprise that he doesn't feel particularly wounded or in pain. Not having been involved myself I can't say for sure, but my guess is that I'd be feeling something closer to "Wild!" than "Oh my God how could she have done this terrible thing to us?". But I'm a loon anyway.

The latest Microsoft security hole is in Word for a change, not in IE. Did you think that opening RTF-format files was safe? I used to think that, too. Silly me.

By embedding a macro in a template, and providing another user with an RTF document that links to it, an attacker could cause a macro to run automatically when the RTF document was opened. The macro would be able to take any action that the user herself could take.

I didn't even know RTF files could have links to templates. Note to Microsoft: please stop allowing everything to contain links to templates.

Make your own Slashdot! You'll be glad you did.

Monday, May 21, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

"Um, so now I'm drawing four cards, playing two, and then discarding until I only have three in hand?"

"That's right. Unless the rules change during your turn."

"And I win if I put down the Eye and the Pyramid?"

"Unless the rules change."

I wandered into Looney Labs the other week from somewhere or other, and thought the stuff looked pretty neat (and cheap!). I've always liked reading and playing with the rules to games at least as much as just playing the games, and this looked like a good source of madness along those lines, as well as being one of those karmically correct places run by a few random bright whackos in loose cotton clothing.

So I ordered a Fluxx deck, and when it arrived it was a big hit. The little daughter and I played several games, and then she borrowed the deck to take to a friend's house, and apparently several three and four-handed games were committed over there. So now I'm probably going to order another couple of decks, some blank cards (for writing new rules on), and probably a copy of Chrononauts, 'cause that looks like fun also. (And probably some Free Stuff too, heh heh.)

In between Fluxx games, we also went to a Bar Mitzvah over the weekend. It was kinda fun; I generally like religious services. This was a considerably Reform temple, and the ambience somehow reminded me of a Unitarian church. They even had a special version of one of the prayers glued into the front (back) of the prayer book, and we used it instead of the one printed inside. It had a transliteration of the Hebrew printed with it, and I worked out that the glued-in version gave credit to Sara, Leah, and Rebecca in a couple of places, whereas the original only mentioned Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Just like a Unitarian church!   *8)   Except for all the Hebrew.

It strikes me that, assuming the average member of the congregation is less fluent in Hebrew than in English, there's a tradeoff involved there. Every prayer or commentary or hymn that's written or read or sung in Hebrew rather than English is a little less in the way of comprehension and actual teaching, and a little more in terms of group solidarity (which, as M points out to me, is incredible important for the Jewish people). Whereas every prayer or commentary or hymn that's in English is a little less in the way of marking off the congregation as a special people, separate from the daily world of TV and K-Mart, and a little more in terms of actual shared thoughts. I would tend to err on the side of comprehension, myself (are there any Jewish congregations so radical that almost the whole service is in English?). But then I've never been really big on group solidarity.

Anyway, it was fun trying to follow along with the Hebrew, based on being able to recognize a few key words ("Shalom", "Adonai", "Yisrael", "Baruch", "Elohenu", "Echod"). I could usually point to the page to show the little boy how far along we were, with reasonable accuracy.

During the service the rabbi mentioned the six hundred and thirteen mitzvahs (mitzvos?) that the Bar Mitzvah boy was now more or less responsible for. What a big number! I looked them up on the Web after we got home, of course. There are lots of pages. Many of the rules are simple and good (return lost property, honor scholars and parents, not stealing, not bearing a grudge, not letting the King get too rich). Others are sort of picturesque (not planting trees in the sanctuary, searching for the prescribed signs in grasshoppers, kindling of the lamps by the Kohanim). A few are, in the modern context, regrettable (not to show mercy to idolators, not to intermarry with a heretic, not to marry a man who cannot have children, the prohibition on sex between men).

Thinking about the Mitzvoh, and hearing about the polygamy case in Utah, put me suddenly into "stark incomprehension" mode. I mean, I know in a sort of abstract and theoretical way how memes operate in a culture. But in practice: Huh? There's this guy on TV saying that his imaginary friend in the sky wants him to have lots of wives. And there's this enormous legal system devoted to making sure that he doesn't have lots of wives because, well, that's something that one doesn't do! And there are millions of people who won't eat certain foods in certain circumstances, not for any reason grounded in fact, but because it's part of who they are.

It's just strange.

Shouldn't people be forbidden to do things only when those things actually hurt someone, or violate someone's rights? Well, maybe that's the wrong standard. Maybe there are things that people mustn't do, not because anyone is directly hurt or any rights directly violated, but simply because if people aren't forbidden from doing those things, society will collapse. And so lots of people will suffer indirectly.

But I'm not at all convinced that all (or even any?) of the victimless crimes that we punish (and the victimless sins that various religious communities punish in their own non-governmental ways) are really things like that. I think society is pretty robust against things like naughty words, ambisexual relationships, polygamy, and even planting trees in the sanctuary. As long as it's your own sanctuary. And all your wives are there of their own free will.

Friday is Towel Day!

Ms. K

Steve, perhaps merely to torment me for my endless navel-gazing about the political role of pretty pictures, has put up a whole page (representing who knows how many Steve-days of work) full of pretty pictures of pretty women for use as desktop backgrounds. Weak thing that I am, I was unable to resist, and I now have (a reverse videod and somewhat photoshopped version of) one of Steve's Anna K's as my own desktop background. That's a (colorized) thumbnail of her over to the left there; I won't burden you with the whole thing.

I think this is very cool: the Wikipedia. An open place on the net where everyone in the world can collaborate to write an encyclopedia. I did entries for "Computer virus" and "Trojan horse" and "Utilitarianism" and maybe some other stuff, I forget. Other people may have completely rewritten them by now, of course! Note that this may not be the best way to create an encyclopedia in various meanings of "best", but it's a nice chaotic experiment, and I like those.

A reader writes:

David, you sexy expert, you.

Aw, shucks! This is someone quoting an old Wired article quoting me. It's always nice to be reminded of my fleeting moments of fame!

Inspired by that to kiboze through Google for various references to myself, I found someone who linked to my review of Calvino's Invisible Cities (on the same page as a bunch of real professional-type reviews), and I was also reminded of a flap the other year about the responsibilities of weblogging. Ah, nostalgia!

Speaking of the responsibilities of webloggers, and referring back to an old thread of ours about fictional weblogging, there's been an interesting mess revealed recently, in which someone turned out to be more or less sort of fictional. This has of course occasioned lots of discussion! Aren't societies wonderful?

Ebay: Den Of Thieves?

Police said criminals usually collect only 25 cents on the dollar when they pass off fenced material. But on an auction site like eBay, a bidding war can result in much higher profits.

You think?

Friday, May 18, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

The room filled gradually with librarians; tall and short, pink and brown, neat and tousled. They went to their seats quietly, silent or talking in hushed tones.

He knew, with a dreadful and growing certainty, that every one of them was there because of him.


Most abusers have at least one parent who abused literature, often beginning at an early age and progressing into adulthood. Siblings of abusers are also likely to become literature abusers. Spouses of an abuser may themselves become problem readers.

From the mysterious HTML O' the Day list, upon whose link-text I cannot improve: Unclear on the concept. Of course, it could just be an attempt to get lots of hits (and links).

From Debra Hyde, a summary of news stories in the Elyse's Passion Obscenity Case, a case where the government is spending lots of taxpayer money to attempt to muffle sex. Again. Sheesh!

And relatedly, Daze Reader ("all about sex, technology, culture, news, art, gossip, politics, ideas, drugs, rock & roll... but mostly sex").

On Forbes.com, Burning Questions, Final Answers. An amusingly various set of questions and variously serious answers (fourteen pages of them!). For instance:

9. Will English become the official language of the Internet, as it has become in aviation? ...
24. What does Esther Dyson actually do, and is she any good at it?
...Daughter of renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, the man who said, "It is better to be wrong than to be vague," Esther has figured out how to do both simultaneously....
34. What's the difference between a Ponzi scheme and the Internet stock bubble? ...
60. How long will Moore's Law prevail? ...
63. Whatever happened to cold fusion? ...
64. Whatever happened to cold-filtered Miller Genuine Draft? ...

Opera and IBM, sitting in a tree!

After years of waiting patiently for AOL Time Warner or Microsoft to stumble, Opera Software is trumpeting its relationship with IBM as evidence it's making progress against its massive rivals in the browser market.

New IE security bug, bad guys can read your files and lie about who they are, patch available, upgrade now, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill...

Another domain discovered in .int! Interpol. Yes, the shadowy organization that you know only from paperback thrillers has its own Website! With little bitty fonts!

Attentive Aviary proved to be a challenge, but one to which a few readers rose admirably.

Apprehensive apiary


pink parrots, sprightly sparrows, cross-dressing crows and jaded jackdaws.

you don

Eagle-eye : multifar*i*ous

Note the bold insouciance of "graph" and "you don", the playfulness of the apiary and the sparrows. The eagle-eyed reader combines an on-topic input box phrase with a kind typo correction. I find, though, that at least today I prefer my spelling to the correct one.

And, saving the most impressive for last:

in their aviary
even killing their own offspring
when these become
three quarters grown.
The little cock
is very attentive
to his hen
in their aviary
when these become

Lovely in itself, it also suggests an entire genre of Web-found poetry.

On other subjects, a reader writes:

Whatever happened to Nomic?

Ah, yes, Nomic, yes, well (nervous laughter). I'm sure we'll do Nomic again really really soon now. Ha ha, yes certainly.

... and what about 'dem hovercrafts?!

Now on the hovercrafts I plead innocence; we did do the hovercrafts, didn't we? Ah, yes, indeed we did the hovercrafts.

On my bitterness, a reader writes:

They never mention me either. Does it hurt a lot, David?

The question is interesting. The "David" at the end in particular. It makes the question sound more (what?) more serious, or concerned. You can see the questioner leaning forward slightly in eir chair.

Or maybe e's just being friendly. *8)

No, it doesn't hurt at all. There's that sort of "not contacted by beneficent aliens from Planet Zleen again today" disappointment to it, of course. Every time some Major Media Outlet writes about weblogs there's some teensy chance that they'd accidentally mention mine. But it doesn't come up to the level of pain. I've had my occasional slashdotting, and my name's shows up in the media now and again, and I know it's not an important thing. It was just pretend bitterness.

But thanks for the concern!


earlier entries