On 18 October 2007, British police arrested the owner of TV-Links[1] and shut down his website, www.tv-links.co.uk. This popular site[2] had provided links to a variety of copyrighted programs. If one missed an episode of The Sopranos or LOST, TV-Links would have it. One could watch programs, cartoons, documentaries. Some of this material was not copyrighted; some of the material came from mainstream sites such as videos.google.com. If one didn’t feel like going out to the movies, many current releases were available. If TV-Links had actually hosted the material, then it would be in clear violation of copyright laws; however, TV-Links scrupulously avoided hosting any material, and only provided links to other websites. Many of these other websites, such as http://www.ouou.com/, are located in Asia. The countries hosting the offending material may include countries which have not signed intellectual property treaties, and hence are not subject to draconian laws such as the DMCA. America’s DMCA is not a world-wide law, yet.

The end of TV-Links brings up disturbing questions. The Internet is based on upon links of information to other information. If police action infringes upon this structure, the Internet will alter beyond recognition. Imagine a web page that had no links to any other information, for fear of being sued if one of those other sites put up copyright infringing material.

Is it a crime to merely link to information? Can a person be put in jail for making a link of his website to another page that shows content which, in its home country, is legal? Would it be illegal then to put the web address of a copyright-infringing site on a t-shirt? In a painting? Anti-Internet extremists would insist that, yes, this would be the case. The situation would be no different than a person offering information on how to kill; even if that person did not personally murder, he encouraged others to do this illegal act. This example seems extreme, but the strange reasoning of the DMCA makes committing a crime and making a few clicks on a blog equivalent in the eyes of the law.

The case of TV-Links is cause for pause among many bloggers and site owners. Imagine that you make a link to a video on YouTube. Much of the content on YouTube violates the DMCA; YouTube quickly removes infringing content that is brought to its attention, but some companies do not protest, happy for the added exposure on this site. You might imagine that if a video is allowed on YouTube, then you can make a link to it; however, under the logic of the attack on TV-Links, you are a violator as well. Will the police come knocking on your door, instead of YouTube’s?

When you make a search on Google, this search engine will return many sites that contain copyrighted material. Is Google violating the law? One might argue that the primary purpose of Google is not copyright infringement, while the primary purpose of TV-Links was copyright infringement. However, this gray distinction would require a case-by-case determination of which sites were in compliance of the law based on a fuzzy “intent” standard.

The Wayback Machine, www.archive.org/index.php, is a site that caches old website and is very useful for research. The Wayback Machine could therefore be in violation of the law if any of its cached information violated copyright law. And, in fact, The Wayback Machine had old pages of TV-Links, including the working links from that page, archived after TV-Links was shut down. For the sake of fairness, then, the operators of The Wayback Machine should have been arrested as well.

[1] Sheriff, Lucy, 2007. “TV-Links man was arrested under trademark laws.” The Register, 23 October 2007. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/23/tv_links_trademark_law/ Retrieved 27 October 2007.

[2] According to Alexa, http://www.alexa.com/data/details/traffic_details?url=tv-links.co.uk, in the three months before its closure, TV-Links was ranked in the top 200 sites on the Internet, and was viewed by 0.293% of all Internet users.

Leave Britney ALONE!!!

Ok ... I thought I had no energy left to keep hating on BritBrit, but this video is too funny not to share. Enjoy. :)

Um, if you're easy offended, don't click on this. :)

The Praetorians of Blackwater

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has just issued an order that may become the most important turning point in relations between the United States and the Maliki government. The Interior Ministry has ordered private Blackwater contractors to leave Iraq.

Why should the presence or absence of private contractors affect relations between nations? The answer lies in what Blackwater does for the United States.

Blackwater is a private security firm based in North Carolina. Founded in 1998 and composed primarily of ex-SEALS, Blackwater has worked in Iraq as the personal guards of Viceroy Paul Bremer and a number of other security details. As Jeremy Scahill has reported, Blackwater has become, in essence, a Praetorian Guard, an army within an army.

Blackwater does many things. In addition to guarding VIP;s, the mercenaries assist in the delivery of supplies into dangerous areas. It was on one of these missions that four Blackwater employees were killed, burned, and hanged from a bridge in Falluja in 2004. Blackwater was also used to defend federal buildings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why American troops in Iraq were deemed insufficient for such tasks, as was past procedure, has never been fully explained.

This war has used private mercenaries like no other war before it. There are almost 50,000 private security employees in Iraq, spread among 180 different companies. Blackwater is the largest. During the first Iraq War, the ratio of private contractors to soldiers was 1:60; in the current war, the ratio is 1:3.

Although Blackwater employees do not get health benefits or retirement (they are 1099 independent contractors), they are paid handsomely, between $600 to $1500 per day, seven days a week. At the high end, in other words, they're making SAG union scale. Compare this with the average pay for US Army personnel: $1500-1800 per month, or $50-$60 per day. The work is essentially the same.

Blackwater has its own guns, its own helicopters and Humvees. It is a private army for hire. And it is answerable to no one.

Blackwater employees are immune from either Iraqi or American law in the course of the jobs, per the infamous Order No. 17. They operate in a Kafkaesque legal limbo.

The legal status of operations in Iraq has always been nebulous. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports in one of the most important books to come out of the war, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Americans in Iraq operated in a Helleresque environment, where they could not drink alcohol or smoke indoors or lift boxes without back braces, per strictly enforced OSHA regulations, while mortar shells rained down and fires raged through buildings amid the smoke, chaos, and uncontrolled looting.

If Blackwater stays, and the Interior Ministry's order is nullified by their American masters, then the last shred of independence of the Maliki government will be ripped away. Malaki will then simply be seen as an employee of George Bush, rather than a head of state. If Blackwater leaves, this will radically change the way this war is conducted. This could be the beginning of the end.


When I was young, teachers in home economics advised me that one should budget no more than 30% of one's gross income (before taxes) on housing.

How do things stand today? Statistics just released by the Census Bureau show that in 2006, a significant portion of the US population spent more than 30% on housing.

California, not surprisingly, led the pack: Fully 52% of Californians spent more than the 30% benchmark. In fact, 22% of homeowners and 27% of renters spent more than 50% of their total income (before taxes) on housing.

The state with the lowest percentage of people spending above the 30% benchmark was, dontchaknow, North Dakota (23%), followed by West Virginia (25%).

The states with the highest percentage of people spending above the 30% benchmark were Florida (45%), New Jersey (45%), Connecticut (44%); for the western United States, Nevada came in at 46%, Washington at 40%, and Oregon and Colorado both at 39%. According to my high school home economics teachers, these states should receive failing grades.

Free market theory dictates that the high prices in these areas will affect peoples' decisions about where they live, and those of lower incomes will flock to the Midwest; this migration will lower prices on the coasts, and raise demand in the Midwest. . But the flaw in this theory is that it assumes living locations are fluid; few people are psychologically ready to shift their homes as easily as they would shift which gas station to choose. Are Californians thinking about moving back to Oklahoma, in a reverse Dustbowl migration? The idea is laughable.

What we need to realize is this: The "free market" does not follow theory in matters of housing, and we need to think about structuring our cities in different ways. Single family homes, with a detached house and large back yard, should be the rarity rather than the standard abode. At present, California is building legions of new suburban homes to meet the alleged "demand," but what is missed is that these styles of homes will remain unaffordable to the majority of people. We need a different architecture. We need to build up, not out.

I would write more, but I have to go work now to pay my rent. :)

Enforced Uninsurance

Today's New York Times had a front-page article about efforts of the Bush administration to prevent states such as California from insuring children with medical care.

New federal regulations, released last Friday, require that certain children moving from private plans to state-sponsored programs must have at least a one-year period of uninsurance. Also, to prevent parents from trying to substitute public programs for private insurance, the Bush administration requires that copayments and premiums should be equivalent to private insurance.

These limits kick in if states wish to provide funding with the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a law passed in 1997 to help low-income children have health care. States such as California and New York have tried to expand this coverage option to those of incomes above the federal poverty level, and herein lies the rub.

The federal poverty level for a family of four is $20,650. Everyone agrees that this number is based upon faulty calculations, and comes from an earlier era in which housing cost a much lower percentage of income, while food cost substantially higher. We're living in a different time, and the poverty level calculation now vastly understates true purchasing power. However, no president wants to be the one to revise this poverty level and produce perhaps as much as a doubling of the poverty rate under his administration. So the fiction of this poverty rate calculation continues, even though all parties know it is a fraud.

The federal poverty rate doesn't take into account the vast regional differences in the cost of living. I have some friends living in Ohio who want to move back here, but cannot sell their beautiful 3 bedroom house for their asking price of $168,000. The median housing price in the Bay Area in April 2007 was $720,000. And if you're thinking that salaries in the Bay Area compensate for this difference, their move will involve a pay cut.

New York recently tried to allow children to enroll in the CHIP if their families earned as much as 400% of the federal poverty level. While this may seem like a circumvention of the point of CHIP--helping low-income kids--the level of qualification for enrolling in CHIP is based on the fiction of the federal poverty level.

The Bush administration now wants to force any child coming from a family with an income 250% of the federal poverty level to 1) wait one year before being enrolled, and 2) pay private insurance-equivalent copayments and premiums.

As an added catch, states wishing to enroll any children above 200% of the poverty level must prove they have enrolled 95% of below 200% children in the state. Not one state has achieved this to date, and according a Professor Cindy Mann of Georgetown, no state can achieve such an unrealistically high goal. Setting these pie-in-the-sky goals, such as the fantasy in No Child Left Behind of 100% of children performing at grade level by the 2013-14 school year--even if they are developmentally delayed, even if school rooms are falling apart, while school budgets are slashed--is endemic to an administration divorced from what is mocking calls "the reality-based community."

All this is just another sordid, embarrassing episode in the long national disgrace of our health care system. This byzantine, Kafkaesque labyrinth of regulations is well-designed to do one thing: To punish sick children for being poor. What kind of a president does that, and what sort of country are we if we allow it?

Potter Predictions

Ok, I know that I am technically posting this at 12:30 am on 21 July, so the book has been on sale for half an hour, and there have been numerous spoilers flitting around the Internets. However, I was out drinking tonight, and am only just now back at my computer. For my own embarrassment, I'm putting it on the line and making some predictions, based on my exhaustive, erudite, and encyclopedic study of the Harry Potter series:

1. Snape will die.
Harry will come to understand that Snape was acting on Dumbledore's orders when Snape killed Dumbledore. Harry will recognize that he had been wrong about Snape all along.

2. Malfoy will die, but with his death help Harry greatly. Malfoy will betray the Dark Lord.

3. Dudley Dursley will perform magic.
Rowling has hinted that a character will perform magic who has never performed magic before. Dudley has Petunia's bloodline, which is magical, even if Petunia is a squib.

4. There will be a Deatheater attack at the wedding of Fleur and Bill.

5. Harry will discover something related to the Horcruxes at Godric's Hollow, where his parents were killed.

6. Neither Harry nor Ron nor Hermione will die.

7. Neville Longbottom will become a Herbology teacher at Hogwarts later in his life.

8. The locked room in the Department of Mysteries contains the source of magic itself--and Harry will either lose his own ability to do magic, or cause magic to cease from the world.

So there it is. By the time you're reading this, you'll know how many (if any) of these I got right. :)

the rich and the poor

Today's New York Times reported on a new policy in San Diego which requires those applying for or receiving public benefits to submit to unannounced visits from investigators looking for welfare fraud.

Anyone who has ever dealt with the welfare system knows that, even if one is applying for something as common as unemployment insurance, the invasions of privacy are onerous and purposefully humiliating. Lose a job, and you'll have to stand in line for hours, yelling your very personal information over a crowded desk. Giving up your privacy is an intentional aspect of a system designed to save money by scaring or confusing people away. As Ayn Rand noted, the hallmark of civilization is its degree of individual privacy--and it seems San Diego is slithering backwards into a tribal, paranoid culture.

We Americans do not care about much except money. Those who travel abroad often note that people in other counties do not incessantly compare their salaries or job prospects. Americans are like annoying couples who talk about nothing except about their children. It is no surprise then that San Diego is willing to sacrifice privacy in order to save a little bit of money.

Our American obsession with spending is, literally, driving us to bankruptcy. In 2006, Americans spent $42 billion more than they earned. American spending increases even as the value of our dollar nosedives. Our economic growth is so sluggish that by 2027 the People's Republic of China is expected to surpass our GDP. About 70% of our GDP is fueled by consumer spending, compared to 43% in Norway. Norway, of course, is the best place in the world to live, according to the United Nations--even with the weather. So much for the world's superpower.

The Last

Two pieces of news today:

The last two white rhinos in Zambia were shot last week. One of these died, and her horn was cut off for sale by poachers.

A whale killed off Alaska contained fragments of a harpoon shot into it sometime around 1890. These antique fragments were discovered when the whale was killed and harvested.

The real question to ask of these news items is: Why, in 2007, are whales and rhinos still being killed by people? There are a multitude of possible answers, but the one that speaks to me is this: People are inherently evil, and we have failed as a species. If in a hundred years of knowing about this problem we have not come up with the political will to stop this madness, then I can think of no hope for us in the longer term. Perhaps it is now time for the rats and weeds to take over.

California Emissions Standards

Many years ago, former California Governor Gray Davis attempted to phase out the possible carcinogen MTBE from California gasoline. He encountered legal trouble when a Canadian firm sued to block California's MTBE regulations from going into effect. The basis of the suit was that because they manufactured MTBE, their profits would be hurt if California banned MTBE; under the rules of NAFTA, Canadian courts had jurisdiction to speak upon California laws. "Free trade"--in this as in other respects--is an Orwellian phrase that really meant a series of restrictions. MTBE seeped into our water supply for years as lawyers talked to each other.

Now both Democrats and Republicans in California have tried over the last year to implement a tougher emissions standard for cars sold in California. This is a rare case of bipartisan cooperation on an important issue.

However, the EPA has refused to allow California's new regulations to go into effect on the basis that auto emissions are a federal, not state, matter. And under the Bush administration, the EPA refuses to require higher auto emissions. When the regulatory authority refuses to act, can other agencies step into fill the gap? This issue is currently being legislated and litigated.

Lost in this problem is the important question: Why should the EPA have jurisdiction over California's air? Certainly if a state did not want to protect its citizens to the minimum required at the federal level, that would be an issue--but what is happening here is a greater protection. Car manufacturers argue that if a state as populous as California implements more restrictive standards, then they will be forced to obey these guidelines in order not to lose the California market; if it were a smaller state, this might not be such an issue. Therefore, restrictions in California become--in their eyes--a backdoor way to set national car emission standards. Lost is the idea that if those who believe absolutely in the free market were true to their ideals, it would work fine to have California cut out of the new car market if it were not profitable for car companies.

The EPA refusing to allow this is like the feds stepping into say that California cannot have a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage. California does have a higher minimum wage, and it should be allowed to have higher emissions standards if that is what the voters of California desire.

Now Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher, of Virginia, has introduced legislation that would stop California's efforts entirely. To wit, his bill would forbid the EPA from allowing exemptions if "such state standards are designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." By definition, increasing gas mileage standards is designed to do this.

This is Act II of the betrayal by the Democrats. The first act was the recent authorization of the spending bill for the Iraq war without inclusion of timetables; this basically gave Bush everything he wanted from the negotiation. Now, if this bill is passed, California will be betrayed and its desire to lead in environmental issues curtailed.

However, even if this proposal fails, the Democratic Congress has still reneged on its duty to California by not ordering the EPA to grant California a waiver in order to implement higher emissions standards.

Kristof on Health Care

The always-interesting Nicholas Kristof had some disturbing numbers regarding American health care in his NYT column today:

  • a person without health insurance is 25% more likely to die prematurely
  • a child born today in the United States has a lower life expectancy than a child born today in Costa Rica
  • our infant mortality, maternal mortality, and longevity numbers are the worst in the industrialized world
  • on average, we in the US spend $7000 per person per year for health care, far more than any other nation
  • if our infant mortality rates dropped to the levels of France, Germany, and Italy, this would result in 12,000 fewer babies dying (somehow, the religious right doesn't seem as concerned about these babies as those who might be aborted)
  • the infant mortality rate in the US is three times higher than in the Czech Republic
  • a US woman compared to a European woman is 50% more likely to die in childbirth
  • by 2008, the average Fortune 500 company will spend more on health care for its employees than its entire net income, crippling the international competitiveness of our major companies
  • the head of Safeway, Steve Burd, formed the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform in order to lobby Congress for national health care on behalf of corporations
  • 31% of US health spending goes to management; can you imagine investing in a mutual fund that had a 31% load?
  • in terms of lives saved, the two biggest recent events have not been medical; they are anti-smoking laws and mandated air bags
One argument often floating to explain this is that the US is absorbing a flood of immigration from 3rd world countries; in other words, our population is becoming sicker by immigration of the poor than by a decay of our system. This comparison is wrong because European countries are simultaneously absorbing a flood of immigration themselves.

Some other stats from http://www.joepaduda.com/archives/000243.html:
  • despite waiting lists in other countries, US citizens have per-capita access to fewer beds, doctors, an equipment such as MRI's
  • although the US has more malpractice suits, awards in the US are 14-36% lower than in other industrialized nations
  • malpractice costs as a percentage of health care spending: 0.5%

And, of course, this from a study by the Commonwealth Fund, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070515/hl_afp/ushealthgovernmentpolitics_070515045735:
  • "The US ranked last in most areas, including access to health care, patient safety, timeliness of care, efficiency and equity. Americans were also last in terms of whether they had a regular physician."
Have a nice day. Don't get sick. ;)

Annihilation From Within

A disturbing article from today's San Francisco Chronicle on preparations to suspend civil liberties in the wake of terrorist attack:


If Al Qaeda succeeds in a nuclear attack, we lose the Bill of Rights. Of course, we've already effectively lost the 4th Amendment. It's shocking to me, though, to read about about people meeting to actually plan what rights to take away in the wake of an attack.

If such a bomb does go off ... how can we be sure it wasn't intentionally set by those who stand to gain from the loss of our civil rights?

It took Winston Smith a while to figure out that the rocket bombs falling on the cities of Oceania were launched from within Oceania. Let's hope we learn from this.

Scientology Strikes Again

In case you needed another reason to loathe extremist religions: John Travolta is denying proper medical care to his son, Jett, because of his religious beliefs.

According to sources close to the family, Jett suffers from symptoms consistent with autism. Scientology considers any mental disorder to be a result of uncleared "engrams," a phenomenon never established by any medical research. L. Ron Hubbard was very clear in his writings that he thought mental illness did not actually exist. No doubt Jett is being subjected to Scientology practices, consistent with his parents' religion, and entirely at odds with medical science.

Belief means that you continue to do something in the face of evidence against it. But how far does a parent take this position? To the point of hurting your child? Even faith-healer and charlatan Pat Robertson went begging to those Darwinist, science-practicing surgeons when he was diagnosed with cancer; he wasn't about to stake his life on his "personal relationship with Christ" and rely on prayer to heal him.

Should any parent have the right to endanger their children's health and happiness for the sake of a fairy tale fantasy?

Vonnegut II

Vonnegut was also able to mock himself to great effect. He joked that smoking was a sexy way to commit suicide. He appeared as himself in a Rodney Dangerfield movie. He wrote about the fictional character Kilgore Trout, who appears in many of his books, then surprised everyone when Venus on the Half-Shell was published under the name of Kilgore Trout, leading to confusion as to whether Kilgore Trout actually existed. Vonnegut added fuel to this confusion by declaring that Kilgore Trout killed himself by drinking Drano in October 2004, after learning from a psychic that George Bush would win reelection. It's a messy, funny, weird farce--just as Vonnegut meant it to be, and just as life is.

But now Vonnegut's life is no more. We the living go on... busy, busy, busy.

I think Vonnegut wrote his own epitaph with these words from Cat's Cradle:
"If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.

I have always felt a connection to Vonnegut, and in no small part this connection stems from the fact that my middle name comes directly from one of his books, which my father was reading while I was pushed, howling and crying, into this mad world.

Vonnegut will always be inexorably linked in my mind to his peer, Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 and Something Happened. Both Heller and Vonnegut distilled in comic perfection the absurdity of life. While Sartre and Camus viewed the madness of existence through a somewhat grim lens, Heller and Vonnegut made it clear that in the modern world the inhabitants of the lunatic asylum have taken over. To paraphrase Whittaker Chambers, when we've moved beyond a 19th century world and done away with the fiction of God, to a 20th century world where one cannot have faith in man, there is nothing left but unendurable pain, suffering, and comedy.

One of Vonnegut's funniest and most profound inventions was the fictional religion of Bokononism, in which the founder, Bokonon, declares that everything in the religion is a lie. It is only by believing untruths that one can find happiness. The Book of Bokonon, in which the text is in the form of calypsos, opens by warning the reader to close it at once, because everything in it is lies. If only other relgious texts were as honest. ;)

Vonnegut was able to skewer contemporary ideas (religion, the Cold War, Bushism) with wit and humor, in a way that brings Mark Twain to mind. Vonnegut knew instinctively that people react better to farce than ad hominem attacks, that honey is sweeter than piss and vinegar. He was misattributed with the famous "wear sunscreen" commencement address, and although these weren't his words, that message of humor, despair, and hope resonated because it was so much like his own writing.

The High Cost

Today's New York Times Science Times section had an intersting set of statistics about sexual attraction. The statistics came from a study of 20,000 online profiles and participants who ranked the profiles in terms of attractiveness.

Not surprisingly, height in males was considered a major factor in attractiveness to females. Height and attractiveness were ranked with reference to height as 6'0" and an average income of $62,500 per year. Short stature could be overcome in terms of luring mates, and one's attractiveness score increased, by financial success.

5'10" just as attractive as 6'0" if income $32,000 more than 6'0"
5'8" just as attractive as 6'0" if income $146,000 more than 6'0"
5'2" just as attractive as 6'0" if income $277,000 more than 6'0"
5'0" just as attractive as 6'0" if income $325,000 more than 6'0"

This isn't the end of the story, because the 6'0" candidates still had to contend with those taller. To be found as attractive as someone 6'4", a 6'0" male would have to make $43,000 more.

Another interesting number: less than 1% of online profiles self-reported as "less than average" attractiveness. Go figure.

For the record, I'm 5'10". :)

3d art & Bosch

I've often thought of how 2d works of art could be brought into 3 dimensions. Many years ago I saw an exhibit at SFMOMA of a series of small figures, like children's action figures, that had been crafted by body scans of actual people. These scans were then turned into sculptures by a 3-dimensional printing technique, such as rapid protyping. Very interesting stuff, but I haven't heard a lot more about it since then.

Now it seems a company has taken it a step further. Talaria Enterprises, http://www.talariaenterprises.com/index.html, sells a variety of sculptures based on paintings. This is exactly what I've been looking for.

I'm a big fan of Bosch--his stuff is what my nightmares are made of. Now you too can get a figure directly from the Garden of Earthly Delights or another of Bosch's psychodelic 15th century musings.

I'd love to see them do this work Brueghel. Oy, to have a miniature set of the characters from The Triumph of Death! :)


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