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February 26, 2010

The community delusion

The court clerk - if that's the right term - seemed slightly baffled by the number of people who showed up for Tuesday's hearing in Simon Singh v. British Chiropractic Association. There was much rearrangement, as the principals asked permission to move forward a row to make an extra row of public seating and then someone magically produced eight or ten folding chairs to line up along the side. Standing was not allowed. (I'm not sure why, but I guess something to do with keeping order and control.)

It was impossible to listen to the arguments without feeling a part of history. Someday - ten, 50, 150 years from now - a different group of litigants will be sitting in that same court room or one very like it in the same building and will cite "our" case, just as counsel cited precedents such as Reynolds and Branson v Bower. If Singh's books don't survive, his legal case will, as may the effects of the campaign to reform libel law (sign the petition!) it has inspired and the Culture, Media, and Sport report (Scribd) that was published on Wednesday. And the sheer stature of the three judges listening to the appeal - Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge (to Americans: I am not making this up!), Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justice Sedley - ensures it will be taken seriously.

There are plenty of write-ups of what happened in court and better-informed analyses than I can muster to explain what it means. The gist, however: it's too soon to tell which pieces of law will be the crucial bits on which the judges make their decision. They certainly seemed to me to be sympathetic to the arguments Singh's counsel, Adrienne Page QC, made and much less so to the arguments the BCA's counsel, Heather Rogers QC. But the case will not be decided on the basis of sympathy; it will be decided on the basis of legal analysis. "You can't read judges," David Allen Green (aka jackofkent) said to me over lunch. So we wait.
But the interesting thing about the case is that this may be the first important British legal case to be socially networked: here is a libel case featuring no pop stars or movie idols, and yet they had to turn some 20 or 30 people away from the courtroom. Do judges read Twitter?

Beginning with Howard Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community, it was clear that the Net's defining characteristic as a medium is its enablement of many-to-many communication. Television, publishing, and radio are all one-to-many (if you can consider a broadcaster/publisher a single gatekeeper voice). Telephones and letters are one-to-one, by and large. By 1997, business minds, most notably John Hagel III and Arthur Armstrong in net.gain, had begun saying that the networked future of businesses would require them to build communities around themselves. I doubt that Singh thinks of his libel case in that light, but today's social networks (which are a reworking of earlier systems such as Usenet and online conferencing systems) are enabling him to do just that. The leverage he's gained from that support is what is really behind both the challenge to English libel law and the increasing demand for chiropractors generally to provide better evidence or shut up.

Given the value everyone else, from businesses to cause organizations to individual writers and artists, places on building an energetic, dedicated, and active fan base, it's surprising to see Richard Dawkins, whose supporters have apparently spent thousands of unpaid hours curating his forums for him, toss away what by all accounts was an extraordinarily successful community supporting his ideas and his work. The more so because apparently Dawkins has managed to attract that community without ever noticing what it meant to the participants. He also apparently has failed to notice that some people on the Net, some of the time, are just the teeniest bit rude and abusive to each other. He must lead a very sheltered life, and, of course, never have moderated his own forums.

What anyone who builds, attracts, or aspires to such a community has to understand from the outset is that if you are successful your users will believe they own it. In some cases, they will be right. It sounds - without having spend a lot of time poring over Dawkins' forums myself - as though in this case in fact the users, or at least the moderators, had every right to feel they owned the place because they did all the (unpaid) work. This situation is as old as the Net - in the days of per-minute connection charges CompuServe's most successful (and economically rewarding to their owners) forums were built on the backs of volunteers who traded their time for free access. And it's always tough when users rediscover the fact that in each individual virtual community, unlike real-world ones, there is always a god who can pull the plug without notice.

Fortunately for the causes of libel law reform and requiring better evidence, Singh's support base is not a single community; instead, it's a group of communities who share the same goals. And, thankfully, those goals are bigger than all of us.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. I would love to hear (net.wars@skeptic.demon.co.uk) from someone who could help me figure out why this blog vapes all non-spam comments without posting them.

February 19, 2010

Death doth make hackers of us all

"I didn't like to ask him what his passwords were just as he was going in for surgery," said my abruptly widowed friend.

Now, of course, she wishes she had.

Death exposes one of the most significant mismatches between security experts' ideas of how things should be done and the reality for home users. Every piece of advice they give is exactly the opposite of what you'd tell someone trying to create a disaster recovery plan to cover themselves in the event of the death of the family computer expert, finance manager, and media archivist. If this were a business, we'd be talking about losing the CTO, CIO, CSO, and COO in the same plane crash.

Fortunately, while he was alive, and unfortunately, now, my friend was a systems programmer of many decades of expertise. He was acutely aware of the importance of good security. And so he gave his Windows desktop, financial files, and email software fine passwords. Too fine: the desktop one is completely resistant to educated guesses based on our detailed knowledge of his entire life and partial knowledge of some of his other PINs and passwords.

All is not locked away. We think we have the password to the financial files, so getting access to those is a mere matter of putting the hard drive in another machine, finding the files, copying them, installing the financial software on a different machine, and loading them up. But it would be nice to have direct as-him access to his archive of back (and new) email, the iTunes library he painstakingly built and digitized, his Web site accounts, and so on. Because he did so much himself, and because his illness was an 11-day chase to the finish, our knowledge of how he did things is incomplete. Everyone thought there was time.

With backups secured and the financial files copied, we set to the task of trying to gain desktop access.

Attempt 1: ophcrack. This is a fine piece of software that's easy to use as long as you don't look at any of the detail. Put it on a CD, boot from said CD, run it on automatic, and you're fine. The manual instructions I'm sure are fine, too, for anyone who has studied Windows SAM files.

Ophcrack took a happy 4 minutes and 39 seconds to disclose that the computer has three accounts: administrator, my friend's user account, and guest. Administrator and guest have empty passwords; 's is "not found". But that's OK, said the security expert I consulted, because you can log in as administrator using the empty password and change the user account. Here is a helpful command. Sure. No problem.

Except, of course, that this is Vista, and Vista hides the administrator account to make sure that no brainless idiot accidentally got into the administrator account and ran around the system creating havoc and corrupted files. By "brainless idiot" I mean: the user-owner of the computer. Naturally, my friend had left it hidden.

In order to unhide the administrator account so you can run the commands to reset 's password, you have to run the command prompt in administrator mode. Which we can't do because, of course, there are only two administrator accounts and one is hidden and the other is the one we want the password for. Next.

Attempt 2: Password Changer. Now, this is a really nifty thing: you download the software, use it to create a bootable CD, and boot the computer. Which would be fine, except that the computer doesn't like it because apparently command.com is missing...

We will draw a veil over the rest. But my point is that no one would advise a business to operate in this way - and now that computers are in (almost) every home, homes are businesses, too. No one likes to think they're going to die, still less without notice. But if you run your family on your computer you need a disaster recovery plan - fire, flood, earthquake, theft, computer failure, stroke, and yes, unexpected death,

- Have each family member write down their passwords. Privately, if you want, in sealed envelopes to be stored in a safe deposit box at the bank. Include: Windows desktop password, administrator password, automated bill-paying and financial record passwords, and the list of key Web sites you use and their passwords. Also the passwords you may have used to secure phone records and other accounts. Credit and debit card PINs. Etc.

- Document your directory structure so people know where the important data - family photos, financial records, Web accounts, email address books - is stored. Yes, they can figure it out, but you can make it a lot easier for them.

- Set up your printer so it works from other computers on the home network even if yours is turned off. (We can't print anything, either.)

- Provide an emergency access route. Unhide the administrator account.

- Consider your threat model.

Meanwhile, I think my friend knew all this. I think this is his way of taking revenge on me for never letting him touch *my* computer.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

February 12, 2010

Light year

This year is going to be the first British general election in which blogging is going to be a factor, someone said on Monday night at the event organized by the Westminster Skeptics on the subject of political blogging: does it make any difference? I had to stop and think: really? Things like the Daily Kos have been part of the American political scene for so long now - Kos was founded in 2002 - that they've been through two national elections already.

But there it was: "2005 was my big break," said Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes. "I was the only one covering it. 2010 is going to be much tougher." To stand out, he went on to say, you're going to need a good story. That's what they used to tell journalists.

Due to the wonders of the Net, you can experience the debate for yourself. The other participants were Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Mick Fealty (Slugger O'Toole), Jonathan Isaby (Conservative Home), and the Observer journalist Nick Cohen, there to act as the token nay-sayer. (I won't use skeptic, because although the popular press like to see a "skeptic" as someone who's just there to throw brickbats, I use the term rather differently: skepticism is inquiry and skeptics ask questions and examine evidence.)

All four of political bloggers have a precise idea of what they're trying to do and who they're writing for. Jonathan Isaby, who claims he's the first British journalist to leave a full-time newspaper job (at the Telegraph) for new media, said he's read almost universally among Conservative candidates. Paul Staines aims Guido Fawkes at "the Westminster bubble". Mick Fealty uses Slugger O'Toole to address a "differentiated audience" that is too small for TV, radio, and newspapers. Finally, Sunny Hundal uses Liberal Conspiracy to try to "get the left wing to become a more coherent force".

Despite their various successes, Cohen's basic platform defended newspapers. Blogging, he said, is not replacing the essential core of journalism: investigation and reporting. He's right up to a point. But some do exactly that. Westminster Skeptics convenor David Allen Green, then standing approximately eight inches away, is one example. But it's probably true that for every blogger with sufficient curiosity and commitment to pick up a phone or bang on someone's door there are a couple of hundred more who write blog postings by draping a couple of hundred words of opinion around a link to a story that appeared in the mainstream media.

Of course, as Cohen didn't say, plenty of journalists\, through lack of funding, lack of time, or lack of training, find themselves writing news stories by draping a couple of hundred words of rewritten press release around the PR-provided quotes - and soul-destroying work it is, too. My answer to Cohen, therefore, is to say that commercial publishers have contributed to their own problems, and that one reason blogs have become such an entrenched medium is that they cover things that no newspaper will allow you to write about in any detail. And it's hard to argue with Cohen's claim that almost any blogger finding a really big story will do the sensible thing and sell it to a newspaper.

If you can. Arguably the biggest political story of 2009 was MPs' expenses. That material was released because of the relentless efforts of Heather Brooke, who took up the 2005 arrival into force of the UK's Freedom of Information Act as a golden opportunity. It took her nearly five years to force the disclosure of MPs' expenses - and when she finally succeeded the Telegraph wrote its own stories after poring over the details that were disclosed.

The fact is that political blogging has been with us for far longer than one five-year general election cycle. It's just that most of it does not take the same form as the "inside politics" blogs of the US or the traditional Parliamentary sketches in the British newspapers. The push for Libel reform began with Jack of Kent (David Allen Green); the push to get the public more engaged with their MPs began with MySociety's Fax Your MP. It was clear as long ago as 2006 that MPs were expert users of They Work For You: it's how they keep tabs on each other. MySociety's sites are not blogs - but they are the source material without which political blogging would be much harder work.

I don't find it encouraging to hear Isaby predict that in the upcoming election (expected in May) blogging "will keep candidates on their toes" because "gaffes will be more quickly reported". Isn't this the problem with US elections? That everyone gets hung up on calumnies such as that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Serious issues fall by the wayside, and good candidates can be severely damaged by biased reporting that happens to feed an eminently quotable sarcastic joke. Still: anything for a little light into the smoke-filled back rooms where British politics is still made. Even with smoking now banned, it's murky back there.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

February 5, 2010

Getting run down on the infobahn

It's not going out on much of a limb to predict that 2010 is, finally, the year of the ebook. A lot of electrons are going to be spilled trying to predict the winners on this frontier; the most likely, I think, are Apple (iPhone, iPad), Amazon (Kindle), Google (Books), and Ray Kurzweil (Blio). Note something about all those guys? Yes: none of them are publishers. Just like the music industry, publishers have left it to technology companies to invent their new medium for them.

Note something else about what those guys are not? Authors. Almost everything that's created in this world - books, newspapers, magazines, movies, games, advertising, music, even some industrially designed products - eventually goes back to one person sitting in a room with a blank sheet of paper trying to think up a compelling story.

Authors - and writers generally - used to have a hard but easy job: deliver a steady stream of publishable work, and remuneration will probably happen. Publishers sold books; authors just wrote them. One of my friends, a science fiction writer contractually bound to HarperCollins, used to refer to Rupert Murdoch as "the little man who publishes my books for me". That happy division of labor did not, of course, provide all, or even most writers with a full-time living. But the most important thing authors want is for their work to be noticed; publishers could make that happen.

Things have been changing for some time. It's fifteen years since authors of my acquaintance began talking about the need to hire your own publicist because unless you had a very large (six figures and up) advance most mainstream publishers would not consider your book worth spending money and effort to market it much beyond sending out a press release. Even copy-editing is falling by the wayside, as a manuscript submitted electronically can now feed straight into a typesetting system without the human intervention that gave pause for rethought.

"Everyone's been seeing their royalty statements shrink," a friend observed gloomily last week. He made, 20 years ago, what then seemed an intelligent career decision: to focus on writing reference books because they had a consistent market among people who really needed them, and they would have a continuing market in regular updates. And that worked great until along came Wikipedia online dictionaries and translation engines and government agency Web sites and blogs and picture galleries, and now, he says, "People don't buy reference books any more." I am no exception: all the reference books on the shelves behind my desk are at least 15 years old. About 10 percent are books I'd buy today if I didn't already have them.

So this is also the year in which the more far-seeing authors get to figure out what their future business models are going to be. An author with a business plan? Who ever heard of such a thing? The nearest thing to that in my acquaintance is the science fiction writer Charles Stross; he is smarter about the economic and legal workings of publisher than anyone I've ever met or heard speak at a conference. And even he is asking for suggestions.

First of all, there's the Google Books settlement, which is so complicated that I imagine hardly any of the authors whose works the settlement is a settlement of can stand to read the whole thing. The legal scholar and MacArthur award winner Pamela Samuelson has written a fine explanation of the problems; authors had until January 28 to opt out or object. This isn't over yet: the US Justice Department still doesn't like the terms.

We can also expect more demarcation disputes like this week's spat between Amazon and Macmillan, discussed intelligently by Stross here, here, and here, with an analysis of the scary economics of the Kindle here. The short version: Macmillan wants Amazon to pay more for the Kindle versions of its books, and Amazon threw Macmillan's books out of its .com pram. Caught in the middle are a bunch of very pissed-off authors, who are exercising their rights in the only way they can: by removing links to Amazon and substituting links to the competition: Barnes and Noble and independent booksellers including the wonderful Portland, Oregon stalwart, Powells.

To be fair, removing the "buy new" button from all of the Macmillan listings on Amazon.com (Amazon.co.uk seems to be unaffected) doesn't mean you can't buy the books. In general, you simply click on a different link and buy the book from a marketplace seller rather than Amazon itself. Amazon doesn't care: according to its SEC filings, the company makes roughly the same profit whoever sells the book via its site.

It's times like these when you want to remember the Nobel Laureate author Doris Lessing's advice to all writers: "And it does no harm to repeat, as often as you can, 'Without me, the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages - all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put-down, and underpaid person.'"

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.