Some notes about presidential politics, hacker jargon, and reality TV,
plus follow-ups and URL's.


I've sent out another batch of cheap pens to people who sent me checks
to Amnesty International.  They should be arriving next week.


I'm missing some more issues of Wired.  Does anybody have unloved
copies of Wired 6.06, 6.07, 7.09, and/or 8.08 lying around somewhere?
Let me know and I'll send my address.  I want to keep a complete set
for research purposes.


Supporters of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader have
an interesting challenge ahead of them.  Deep convictions aside, the
number one practical reason why someone might vote for Nader is that
the Green party gets matching funds in the next election cycle if it
reaches 5% of the vote.  So let us suppose that the Nader supporters
can reach 5% of the vote, but only by throwing the election to George
W. Bush, and that most Nader supporters consider Bush to be much worse
than Al Gore.  If this is all true then the Nader supporters have to
decide which goal they care about most.  The worst outcome from their
point of view is for them to split and produce a 4% vote for Nader
that denies the margin of victory to Gore.  (This is in fact precisely
what Peter Orvetti  predicts.)
The situation resembles the Prisoner's Dilemma, beloved of political
scientists, where all of the voters suffer unless they somehow decide
the same way.  If Nader supporters do comprise 5% of the vote, they
have to decide all together whether to go for Nader or drop Nader and
go for Gore.  Being Greens, however, they are unlikely ever to act
in a coordinated way, and so the worst outcome (for them) is the most
likely one.

One coordination mechanism that has been suggested -- you've probably
heard of it by now -- is a trading system whereby a Gore voter in a
non-swing state promises to vote for Nader if a Nader voter in a swing
state promises to vote for Gore.  This mechanism faces big problems
of publicity (only ten days to go) and enforcement (you can't know
how they voted), but it has the virtue of alleviating the Prisoner's
Dilemma.  It may sound implausible, but if current polls are right
then it would only take about 2% of the vote in a couple of the larger
swing states where Nader is doing well, say Oregon and Wisconsin, to
change the outcome.  That's about 70,000 people, well within the reach
of the Internet, especially given that the voters most likely to go
for such a scheme are probably among the most wired of voters already.
Not that it's going to happen.

After sending out the message about Nader, I heard from
every Nader supporter on the Internet.  They can be pretty defensive
about being blamed for the prospect of a Bush victory.  Having been
flamed, my only mild regret was not commenting on the passage in the message that encouraged people to write e-mail to Nader's
campaign.  I had assumed that only calm and rational people would
send messages to that address, but I guess that assumption is not


Before the election happens, let me observe that this year both major
party candidates are positioning themselves well to the left of their
actual policies.  Bush has a disturbing pattern of embellishing his
record by claiming credit for laws that he actually opposed, and Gore
is engaged in a daring and un-Clinton-like strategy that identifies
working people as the pivotal voters.


Bad arguments are like viruses; once they work their way into the
nerves, they are nearly impossible to eradicate.  When the world was
full of bad arguments about the Internet a few years ago, most people
assumed that the bad arguments would eventually wither in the light of
experience.  But it hasn't happened.  The bad arguments of yesteryear
might no longer fill the op-ed columns, but they're still out there.
Consider, for example, the argument that information on the Internet
is unreliable.  The reason for this alleged problem is usually left
implicit, namely that the Internet lacks the gatekeeping function
of newspapers, publishers, or journal editors.  The problem with this
argument is elementary: the Internet is a medium that many different
institutions can use, and the reliability of information is a function
of the institution, not the medium.  Political discussion groups
that pool conspiracy theories on the Internet are likely to produce
unreliable information, yes, but scholarly journals that publish on
the Internet are no more likely to produce unreliable information than
scholarly journals that publish on paper.  In fact, most of the paper
media also publish on the Internet.  So, on reflection, the argument
is a really bad one.

The underlying problem has two parts.  One is a tendency to use the
phrase "the Internet" in a broad or vague way that covers only certain
uses of the technology.  If you use a search engine to call up Web
pages, then indeed you have to evaluate the quality of the information
you get, and one way you'll do that is by figuring out what kind of
institution produced it.  But that's not about "the Internet"; it's
about a particular way of using it.  And if you use a quality search
engine like Google that sorts the pages according to the number of
other pages that point to them, then you're likely to get pages that
are associated with well-known institutions.

The other half of the problem is technological determinism: the idea,
usually implicit rather than openly avowed, that technology develops
independently of all social influence and then plays a unique role
in driving history.  When people say, "the Internet does this" or
"the Internet is like that", then they are very often falling prey to
this fallacy.  None of this should need saying.  But until we get the
bad arguments out of our nervous systems, we need to keep reminding
ourselves of the good arguments against them.

So far so good, but we have hardly begun to consider the problem of
reliable information.  Although it's wrong to say that information
on the Internet is ipso facto unreliable, it's not enough to say that
institutions solve the problem.  After all, some institutions make
the problem worse.  The opinion columns of Forbes and the Wall Street
Journal, for example, often fail to make logical sense, and the news
media as a whole has been gripped with a bizarre psychosis throughout
the election campaign.  Some other time I hope to sketch my theory of
the market for nonsense.  But right now I simply want to mark the need
for an understanding of information that is not closely tied to a few
specialized institutions.  The Internet is valuable as a distribution
channel for the information created by established institutions, but
it is *important* as a platform for the creation of new institutions
that are less specialized and more democratic.  It's hard, because we
don't want to mindlessly celebrate everyone who claims to bypass the
media.  Everyone makes mistakes, but people who persistently distribute
bad information are not heroes.

In this regard, let us consider a review of Matt Drudge's dreadful new
book that appeared recently in the opinion pages of the Wall Street
Journal (Jack Shafer, Publish a scoop? On the Web? How dare he?, 24
October 2000, pages A22, A24).  This review illustrates the deepening
trend of the new jargon toward complete detachment from reality.  It
is worth quoting the first few paragraphs at length:

  When Matt Drudge broke the news that Monica Lewinsky had paid scores
  of service calls on the White House, the establishment seemed to be
  more outraged about the story's venue -- an amateurish Web site --
  than about its substance.

  Even when Mr. Drudge's Jan. 17, 1998, scoop turned out to be 100%
  true, reporters, pundits, think-tank shills and ethical watchdogs
  savaged him as a merchant of yellow journalism and his medium,
  the mercury-quick Internet, as an enemy of the truth.  By year's
  end, one TV news newcomer with even less journalism experience
  than Mr. Drudge -- President Clinton's former bootblack, George
  Stephanopoulos -- was spanking him for the "lowering of standards
  of what is acceptable political discourse".

  Blaming the lowering of standards on Matt Drudge rather than
  Bill Clinton seems an outrageous matter of shooting the messenger. 
  But the administration and its factotums never really feared Matt
  Drudge as much as they did Drudgism -- the specter of uncontrollable
  voices freely discussing the affairs of state.  Any political parley
  outside the reach of its command-and-control apparatus scares the
  bejesus out of Washington, whether it is on the Internet, through
  the initiative process (against which the Washington Post's David
  Broder has written an entire book) or over the vox populi of talk

This is ugly stuff.  I can hardly begin to enumerate the ways in which
it is twisted.  To focus the issues, let us stipulate that there does
exist a Washington establishment and that large parts of the celebrity
news media are part of it.  Let us also stipulate that the establishment
does not approve of Matt Drudge.  But things go quickly wrong from
there.  First of all, note the word "seemed", which is always a sign
of serious mischief in the new jargon:

  ... the establishment seemed to be more outraged about the story's
  venue -- an amateurish Web site -- than about its substance.

The rule is that you can say anything so long as it's a little vague
and you put the word "seemed" in front of it.  In the land of normal
people, in which one evaluates a phrase like this based on evidence
without resorting to the word "seemed", this assertion is obviously
false.  The establishment has always been strongly anti-Clinton from
the earliest days of Clinton's presidential campaign.  And when the
whole business of Clinton's affair broke, the establishment was nearly
unanimous in condemning him.  Putting up George Stephanopoulos as
an example of the establishment -- after all, the author could have
chosen from dozens of others -- is particularly disingenuous, given
that (as anybody who reads Mr. Shafer's review would well know),
George Stephanopolous was harsh in his condemnation of the president
and was prominent among the early public figures who talked about
impeachment.  Notice all of the rhetorical devices by which Shafer
creates associations between the establishment and Clinton and then
sets out to discredit the establishment's judgements.  Normal people
remember that there were plenty of other reasons to criticize Matt
Drudge besides his breaking of someone else's story about Clinton's
affair, but none of that has been mentioned.  Instead, the word
"spanked" makes the establishment out to be an arbitrary authority.
Stephanopoulos' lack of journalism experience is also used to make
the establishment look hypocritical in its judgements of Drudge, even
though Stephanopoulos' being a newcomer to TV news should logically
make him a poor representative of the Washington news establishment --
especially given that Stephanopoulos had moved to New York.

Notice also the sleight of hand in this passage:

  By year's end, one TV news newcomer with even less journalism
  experience than Mr. Drudge -- President Clinton's former bootblack,
  George Stephanopoulos -- was spanking him for the "lowering of
  standards of what is acceptable political discourse".

  Blaming the lowering of standards on Matt Drudge rather than Bill
  Clinton seems an outrageous matter of shooting the messenger.

This is quite dishonest.  Matt Drudge lowered standards of acceptable
political discourse in quite a few ways, but Shafer juxtaposes a few
elements of the story to make it sound like Stephanopoulos' judgement
was based solely on the content of Drudge's first notorious scoop.
He then twists words yet again by transforming "lowering of standards
of what is acceptable political discourse" into "lowering of standards"
period, again making it sound (without saying so) that Drudge's only
crime had been to report the facts about Clinton's affair.  So we end
up with a totally dishonest picture of a Washington establishment that
is trying to protect the president by punishing the little guy from
Los Angeles for revealing the tawdry information that the establishment 
would prefer to keep secret.

Now comes the big spin:

  But the administration and its factotums never really feared Matt
  Drudge as much as they did Drudgism -- the specter of uncontrollable
  voices freely discussing the affairs of state.  Any political parley
  outside the reach of its command-and-control apparatus scares the
  bejesus out of Washington, whether it is on the Internet, through
  the initiative process (against which the Washington Post's David
  Broder has written an entire book) or over the vox populi of talk

We can, as I say, stipulate that the establishment disapproves of the
Internet, and generally of media channels that it does not control.
But the idea that the establishment derives these opinions from a
left-wing philosophy of "command and control" is quite absurd.  The
Washington establishment vehemently opposed Bill Clinton, is downright
lunatic in its opposition to Al Gore, strongly supported conservative
Republican John McCain, and now daily broadcasts the most shameless
propaganda for George W. Bush.  It would be wrong to say that the
establishment is conservative, in the sense that some oil tycoon
who contributes millions to the Heritage Foundation is conservative.
But it is definitely elitist.  And it is aligned with the Republicans
both because that's the way the wind is blowing, and because elitism
is what the Republican are all about.  The establishment dislikes both
Bill Clinton and Matt Drudge, and for the same reason -- neither of
them is the right sort.

Given all of this, any rational person would be startled by the way
that Mr. Shafer's review ends.  If we skip the seven paragraphs in
the middle of the review, we find this:

  While we're all titillated by the "exclusives" that decorate the
  Drudge Report ... we know from experience not to believe them until
  more credible outlets corroborate.  ...

  By insisting that readers acknowledge his scoops without reporting
  his mistakes ...

  On the long shot that Mr. Drudge's accuracy problem is a correctable
  vice and not a congenital disability ...  More Drudgism! I say.
  But maybe a little less Drudge.

The mind reels.  A moment ago he mocked and dismissed criticism of
Matt Drudge as evidence of a "command-and-control" mentality.  Scorn
was heaped upon the "reporters, pundits, think-tank shills and ethical
watchdogs [who] savaged him as a merchant of yellow journalism".  Now
he admits that Drudge constantly gets things wrong, that his "scoops"
cannot be trusted, and that the jury is still out (and that's putting
it kindly) about whether Drudge suffers from a congenital accuracy
problem.  Isn't that the sort of thing that makes Al Gore a liar, even
when it's not true?  Imagine how different those first few paragraphs
would have sounded if Mr. Shafer had admitted from the outset that
Matt Drudge routinely prints false stories and that people who object
to his lowering of standards have offered plenty of rational grounds.
You'd almost have to admit that the whole story about objections
to Drudge as evidence for a command-and-control Washington Clinton-
defending establishment that feels threatened by any public discourse
it doesn't control ... makes no sense.

So where do we stand?  Well, we can start by not letting Matt Drudge
wrap himself in the Internet cloak of populist virtue.  To let him
wear that cloak is precisely to admit that the establishment is right,
that the common people cannot be expected to be responsible or get the
story straight.  The same thing goes for Rush Limbaugh, who constantly
gets things wrong despite being able to afford a larger staff than
Matt Drudge.  The same, too, for the initiative process: it's cheap
to dismiss its critics as command-and-control freaks, given that
the drawbacks of plebiscitary democracy have been known since
ancient Greece.  Not all populism is good, and not all opposition to
particular would-be populists is bad.  The United States does have
constructive populist traditions -- see for example Lawrence Goodwyn,
Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, Oxford University
Press, 1976 -- and we can hope that the Internet can be part of their
revival.  The Internet has no inherent association with populism, any
more than it has with the establishment.  But it does have particular
properties, and we can investigate the ethics and the politics that
can make the Internet a positive force for democracy instead of a tool
for cynics.


Wish list.  I want an automatic vocabulary extender.  This program
would analyze the writing of many thousands or millions of people,
at their request of course, to determine everyone's vocabulary.
Then it would compare people's vocabulary lists and suggest the
next words that each person might want to add to their repertoire.
So, for example, if I use a certain list of words and you use all
of those same words plus a few more, then I might get a message with
definitions and usage examples of those extra words.  Dictionaries
would be annotated to distinguish between words that are broadly
useful -- such as the hundreds of Latin adjectives and verbs --
and those that are more specialized -- such as botanical terms.
If you and I have the same interests except that you also write about
plants, then it wouldn't make sense to recommend that I use the word
"rhododendron".  I probably know what "rhododendron" means already,
but because I am uninterested in plants I never have any occasion
to use it.  But I might be interested to know that I have never used
the words "conflate" or "ingenuous".  It probably wouldn't take more
than a half-dozen markers on each word to determine which vocabulary
differences between people are worth flagging.  A more advanced
analysis might look up the thesaurus entry for words that I overuse
relative to people with otherwise similar vocabulary profiles, but
that would be a lot harder, since many of those words are keywords
in particular intellectual, political, and cultural traditions, for
which synonyms won't do.


Hacker jargon against history.

For many years I have wanted to write a scholarly paper about hacker
jargon -- the special vocabulary the grew out of the technical
cultures at places like MIT and Stanford and spread with the Internet.
I learned hacker jargon when I went to MIT for graduate school in the
1980s; in fact I learned it a little earlier because I had an account
on MIT-AI (which is what domain names looked like before there were
domains) as an undergraduate.  I can't say that I was ever a native
speaker, but I can tell you that I started feeling old on the day in
the mid-1990s when undergraduates at UCSD started using elements of
hacker jargon without even knowing where it came from.  Unfortunately,
my plans to write my scholarly paper on hacker jargon look futile
at this point.  I had hoped to recover the contents of the backup
tapes from the MIT and Stanford AI Labs from the 1970s, pull out the
mail files, get permission from their owners, automatically generate
usage examples for a few dozen important hacker terms, apply various
linguistic and literary methods, and go from there.  Alas the backup
tapes cannot be read on any working tape drive, and a project to
reconstruct the data in a more jury-rigged fashion never came through.
Oh well.

(An aside.  You are probably familiar with hacker jargon from the
estimable Eric Raymond's dictionary.  But by the time he published
that dictionary, it had gathered all kinds of cruft that was not part
of the jargon that I knew at MIT.  I don't know whether anybody ever
used many of those terms.  But I can testify that the hacker jargon
list circa 1982 really did correspond to the way that people talked
in the -- still very small -- hacker world.  This version looks pretty

That smaller list is what I mean by hacker jargon.)

Rather than write my scholarly paper about hacker jargon, therefore,
let me offer a few observations.  We can start with the word "bogus",
or more specifically with the word "autobogophobia", defined as "the
fear that one is bogus".  This was probably not a widespread usage.
But it did reflect a core feature of hacker jargon: treating English
morphology as a combinatorial system and generating new words from
it without regard for conventional usage.  You can find the complete
list of "bogus" derivations, compiled by Mike Shamos at Yale, here:

Since I don't have to hold myself to scholarly standards of argument
here, I will go right ahead and give you my interpretation of this
fact about hacker jargon.  Ordinary vernacular language is founded in
tradition.  Everyone is socialized into a linguistic tradition, and
everyone consults their intuitive sense of this tradition as a kind
of oracle.  That intuitive sense of language -- its conventions, its
connotations, the associations and echoes that different phrases call
up, expressions like "you'd say this, but you wouldn't say that" --
reflects a particular orientation to history.  It says that we are all
defined to a large extent by history, and that the cultural world that
we have inherited from our forebears is much more extensive that we
could ever hope to get in front of us at one time.  Hacker jargon is
an assault on this relationship to history.  Hacker jargon is, among
other things, an attempt to live outside of history.  If a certain
morphological derivation is permitted by the formal rules of language,
or at least by those formal rules as they have been reconstructed by
English teachers and grammarians, then hackers are going to go right
ahead and work those rules for all they are worth.

Let us consider another kind of example, the words "win" and "loss".
When something good happens (resp. something bad) one might call it
"a win" (resp. "a loss").  "Win" and "lose" can also be verbs: "that
software wins", or "I got to the door, reached in my pocket for my
keys, and realized that I was about to lose".  What's striking about
these words is their vagueness.  The word "win" is something like
the ubiquitous thumbs-up gesture in Brazil: it takes on its meaning
entirely from the context.  (Joel Sherzer, The Brazilian thumbs-up
gesture, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 1(2), 1991, pages
189-197.)  Whatever is good in the context, that's what "win" means.
And, very importantly, what's good in the context is determined by
the values of hacker culture, so that in many cases only an insider to
that culture is in a position to understand just what the word "win"
is being used to praise.  This is especially clear in the case of the
word "winner".  A person is a "winner" if they have the qualities that
hacker culture values.  Foremost among these qualities is smartness,
though liars and crazy people are not "winners".  You can try to
define just exactly what a "winner" is, and you can approximate it,
but you cannot capture it.  Of course, lots of cultures have terms
that defy translation.  But few of those terms are quite so nebulous
as "win".

We normally think of technical people as being precise, but hacker
jargon is often imprecise, even ostentatiously so.  As I hinted a
moment ago, this precision does serve the purpose of displaying group
identity: if you know what someone means when they use the word "win"
in a particular context then you are a hacker.  But I think there's
more to it.  I would argue that the vagueness of "win" and "loss" is
not opposed to the precision of technical language, and that technical
language is also vague.  This will seem surprising, of course, because
we associate technical language with the precision of mathematics.
If you can give a mathematical definition of a word, doesn't that make
it precise?  No, actually, it does not.  To see why, let us take an
example that is central to AI, the word "plan".  In a given technical
paper the noun "plan", and the gerund "planning", will be provided
with a mathematical definition.  (AI people tend to say "formal" or
"rigorous" rather than "mathematical", but that's what they mean.)
And that mathematical definition will be precise.

But that mathematical definition does not exhaust the meaning of the
word.  "Planning" isn't just a certain mathematical structure; it is
also a phenomenon in the world.  People engage in planning, says the
theory -- that is, they make and execute plans -- when they go to the
supermarket or clean the house or prepare dinner.  And this is where
the vagueness comes in: AI people use the word "planning" to refer to
any situation where anybody is exhibiting any sort of orderliness or
purpose or routine in their actions.  It is a giant vacuum cleaner of
a word, sucking up anything that seems remotely relevant and feeding
it into the formal theory.  So the word "planning" has two aspects,
call them formal and narrative.  It is precise in its formal aspect --
much more precise, at least as technical people understand precision,
than the vernacular word -- and it is vague in its narrative aspect --
much more vague than the vernacular word.  This is, I claim, a general
property of technical language, by which I mean language that technical
practices have tethered to mathematical formalisms.

The words "win" and "lose" are not technical words in this same sense.
They do not have formal definitions.  But they do exhibit the same
kind of vagueness that grabs anything that's remotely relevant and
sucks it into the hacker way of thinking.  The vagueness of these
words also, as in the case of "autobogophobia", serves to extract
them from history.  When we learn a word like "win" or "plan", we
learn certain uses of it, and we cannot make explicit everything that
we have learned.  Each word has ragged contours, and we can probe
our intuitions to determine whether a given use of the word is apt.
Consulting vernacular intuitions about the apt uses of words is the
basis of ordinary language philosophy as practiced by J. L. Austin
(How to Do Things with Words, Harvard University Press, 1962) and his
less interesting followers.  But words in hacker jargon, and technical
words generally, do not have this property.  One applies these words
as widely as one possibly can.  After all, technical people are
ultimately rewarded when their work can be applied, and so they might
as well cast a wide net as they search for potential applications.
The test of whether a given situation is usefully construed as
"planning" is whether one can build a computer system that solves
someone's real engineering problem, and not whether our intuitive
sense of language approves of our use of the word.  Subcultures often
define words like "groovy" or "gear" that express their values and
identity in a vague word that means "good".  For hacker jargon this
word is "win", and the values and identity that "win" expresses are
those of technical work.

Hacker jargon has other vague words.  To "frob" something is to mess
with it.  The core meaning probably derives from twiddling a dial on
a scientific instrument, or a radio for that matter, in order to get
it working just right.  But in context, "frob" can mean just about any
action that is repeated and incremental and aimed at getting something
to work.  In this way "frob" is more precise than, say, "mess with",
the phrase that I used to define it.  Yet it has the same quality
of taking on much of its meaning from context.

Much more extreme in this regard is the root word of "hacker", namely
"hack".  Whereas "frob" at least has a certain center of gravity to
it, the word "hack" can mean a huge variety of things.  I observed
this at the time, and the canonical hacker jargon file still includes
my comment that the "hack" has a single, almost mystical meaning
underneath its seeming profusion of usages.  Roughly speaking, to
"hack" is to do anything that hacker culture values.  (Needless to
say, this is well before "hacking" became a bad word in the media.
The native speakers of hacker jargon were most upset about this.)
"Random" is similar to "hack": it too has a wide variety of meanings,
all of which are mystically unified underneath.  (Bill Gates has
caused many people to think that "random" is the worst possible
insult, but only some of the many original uses of "random" were even
mildly negative.)

Hacker jargon is entertaining, but it also has some characteristics
of Newspeak.  The vocabulary is reduced, so that the diverse words
that can mean good things are all replaced by the word "win".  The
hackers of yore were generally educated people, and they did know
a wider variety of words.  One purpose of sorting through their mail
files would be to tell if those words were present.  Methodological
problems abound, of course -- it would be hard to tell if they used
fewer words like "successful" or "excellent" because they used "win",
and much would depend on one's choice of a control group.  But could
at least aspire to ask the questions well.

And they are important questions, it seems to me.  Even though hacker
jargon has evolved and mutated with time, mixing with other jargons
as it was popularized, I've argued (really, claimed) that it expresses
some deep values of engineering -- values that are not only positive.
Newspeak existed largely to erase history from the collective semi-
consciousness of Oceania's culture, and engineering language likewise
attempts to erase history from the culture of technological society.
The idea sounds weird, even conspiratorial.  But intellectual and
cultural movements throughout the modern history of the West have
sought to throw off the bonds of history.  That was why, for example,
modernist designers a hundred years ago threw off decoration and
worked with basic geometric shapes.  But history continues to mould
us, even when -- especially when -- we try to turn our backs on it.
Technology is sufficiently esoteric that technology outsiders cannot
see the history that lies implicit in the main traditions of computer
system design.  And so long as the technologists lack the conceptual
tools to inquire into that encoded history, they continue to encode
that history over and over again in their code.  Hacker jargon is part
of a pattern whereby we continually live out yesterday's tomorrows,
instead of the other tomorrows to which our past might also be capable
of giving rise.


It is often held that Internet privacy problems will be eliminated by
a new class of online third parties called "trusted intermediaries".
The idea is that, instead of visiting directly, you would
visit, and then you would go "through" that site to get to
Amazon.  Now, this scheme can work at a basic level if Amazon doesn't
have to know anything about it.  That's what Zero Knowledge Systems
 is doing.  But that only works if the
relationship between the customer and the vendor is relatively simple.
A third party that requires Amazon's cooperation, for example because
of its distinctive interface for processing pseudonymous requests for
sensitive personal information, seems much less plausible to me.  What
company is going to allow an intermediary to get between it and its
customers?  Amazon?  Bank of America?  It doesn't seem likely.  They'd
have to worry that the intermediary would add its own services or take
money to redirect the customer to competitors.  Those firms could feel
compelled to cooperate with an intermediary if the intermediary became
well-established, but if most online marketplaces become monopolies
or near-monopolies then this isn't likely.  Trusted intermediaries
are not an entirely useless idea.  But like most companies pioneering
new technologies they will have to establish themselves niches in the
short term before they can even understand the nature of the problem
in the long term.


Reality TV against reality.

I look at "reality TV" and I ask myself, what can we do with this that
is actually useful?  Let's explore a scenario and discover why it's
hard.  You will recall my desire to provide students with a clear line
of sight to the lives that they want to have.  So if they want to be
astronauts, I want them to have a very tangible experience of what an
astronaut's day-to-day life is really like in all its aspects.  This
is hard, because there probably aren't a hundred astronauts and you
can't have 100,000 kids following them around.  So why not use reality
TV?  Video recording and editing equipment are cheap, and schools
could pitch in to set up their own broadcast network on the Internet.

You'd still need a skilled documentary filmmaker, of course, and some
curriculum plans that ensure that all of the important aspects of the
astronaut's life get covered (good things, bad things, boring things,
what they learned in school and how they use it, relations with the
other astronauts and everyone else, physical training, career paths,
office politics, travel schedule, family life, you name it).  The show
might be a daily ten-minute update, with each day focused on a single
theme from the curriculum plan.  If a thousand schools pitched in,
it would be cheap.  And if 100,000 schools pitched in, then you could
have a hundred filmmakers following interesting professionals around. 
Some shows might focus on an individual, others on a group, whatever.

Why is this hard?  Technology is the easy part.  One hard part is the
pressure to sanitize everything.  So many genres and cliches exist to
water down the reality of real life that it would take real work to
regain consciousness and present the students with a three-dimensional
view that did not insult their intelligence.  Bureaucracy is the enemy
of such projects.  An even harder problem, however, comes from the
lifeworld of the astronauts.  "Reality TV" shows take place in sealed
containers: a desert island, a compound cut off from the outside world, 
or at best an apartment where everyone who enters signs a release form.
There's a good reason for this: the producers of the program need some
kind of control, and they particularly need to make sure that they can
broadcast the stuff they shoot.  The container is sealed largely for
legal reasons.

This is bad news for our astronaut plan.  Astronauts may go into space
in sealed containers, but their lives are totally wired.  Astronauts
are professionals.  They have PhD's in scientific subjects.  They
work in teams.  They collaborate with people in many hundreds of other
occupations, from doctors to flight controllers to the scientists
to design the experiments to the engineers who design the rockets to
the politicians who pay for it to the managers who run it.  Astronauts
have careers, and people with careers need to build networks.  Those
networks are just about the essence of professional life, and it would
be very important to show the students how the astronauts establishes
and maintains all of those relationships.  Our documentary filmmaker,
however, is going to have a tough time.  Getting all those people
to sign forms would be a lot of overhead, but much worse would be all
of the sensitive information that the people talk about.  Being human
like the rest of us, astronauts presumably gossip about people behind
their backs.  They probably say things that they don't need the whole
world knowing.

And even if the astronauts get good at living on television, their
colleagues won't have the same skill.  Just as the "reality TV" shows
need to create a container to keep private information out, normal
people, singly and in larger units, create their own containers to
keep private information in.  You don't have a clear line of sight
to the professional world unless you understand how the various
relationships work, but the various relationships work largely by
creating carefully calibrated containers for the sensitive human work
that professionals do together.  In fact, astronauts are the best
possible case.  They are scientists, so much of their work is governed
by norms of openness.  They work for the government, so they have to
be accountable to the taxpayers.  They work in particular for NASA,
which is exceedingly PR-minded.  And in their work they mainly place
themselves at risk.  Imagine how much harder it would be to create a
"reality TV" show around the daily life of a doctor or a lawyer.

One could imagine strategies for alleviating these problems.  All
of the shows could be delayed a couple of years before being shown.
People who are writing dissertations based on fieldwork have this
going for them: they can promise their subjects that their secrets
will be old news by the time any articles from the dissertation ever
sees print.  But you'd lose the drama of immediacy, especially when
the people make references to events in the news.  You can imagine
the other strategies and why they'd be hard.  Because the sensitive,
relationship-embedded information is the essence of the professional
world, inevitably you're going to end up with a superficial product.

This whole scenario, then, was a wild goose chase, but it was a wild
goose chase with a purpose.  Many people have observed that video
promises transparency and immediacy, and the more "real" the people,
real-time the images, and artless-looking the production values the
more transparent and immediate it seems.  That promise is seductive,
to the point where otherwise serious people imagine an empowered
citizenry reining in the abuses of the powerful by installing video
cameras in their offices.  Serious video people know that the promise
of transparency and immediacy is misleading.  Camera angles are an
opinion; editing is an opinion; even having a video link at all is
an opinion.  We're better off knowing about the opinions that stand
between us and reality, not to mention the opinions that reality
itself tries to show us.  But none of that helps the students, who
still need some kind of epistemic access to the worlds where they want
to live.  They aren't going to get that access from a fly on the wall,
so we need a different understanding of that access, one that takes
full account of the student's concrete, mediated relationship to the


I have lived in Southern California for almost ten years, and I am
still impressed with the distribution system of the LA Times.  It is
the seventh wonder of the world, and future generations won't believe
that it could have existed.  An LA Times person tells me that it
has scaled back a bit from the days when you could pick up the daily
paper in Ukiah.  But even now, you have to live here for a while to
get a full sense of how enormous the Sprawl is, and what it means
that you're rarely more than two blocks from an LA Times in any sort
of business district.  Here are the numbers: no fewer than 11,000
retail outlets and 23,000 vending machines sell the Times in Southern
California.  Every one of those 34,000 outlets gets fresh papers every
day.  The paper is delivered to doorsteps by 4,500 people to around a
million subscribers.  That number is doing down and is way too small,
but it is still completely amazing, given the geographic territory
it covers.  Everybody keeps waiting for this distribution system to
become redundant with electronic delivery, but it keeps not happening.
These things take a long time.


My article entitled "The New Science of Character Assassination"
contained a slight error.  An article in a British newspaper
described a disturbing incident in which a Washington Post reporter
put a plastic gun to Al Gore's head.  I said that the newspaper was
the Observer, but it was actually a column called Observer in the
Financial Times.

My article about the "Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet"
hoax contained the following passage:

  ... Eleanor Clift's mistaken assertion that Gore had coined (as
  opposed to later popularizing) the phrase "information superhighway".

Having studied the matter further, I am no longer certain that Clift's
assertion was mistaken.  I was taking Wired News' word for it, which
is not such a good idea.  In fact Gore (almost) takes credit for
coining the phrase in the 1970s.,9539,2641278-4,00.html

The evidence I've seen does not disprove him.  Similar-sounding phrases
that were used for unrelated purposes don't count.

Finally, one reader ranted at great length about this link, which I
included in my last batch:

  Finally, the Truth about Bush's Military Service Record

In amongst a great deal of unsubstantiated ad hominem and speculation
was a legitimate point, that this article is in the same ballpark as
the endless reams of dubious "research" that character assassins used
to pump up the Whitewater hoax.  The guy who wrote the article on
Bush's service record has some documents that are probably genuine,
but he is only showing us a fraction of what he has, and we are
trusting him that his other documents don't tell a different story.
We are also trusting that he has enough of the documentary record
to be making any claims at all, given (for example) that orders get
countermanded all the time.  In fact a lot of people have been sending
me scurrilous ad hominem against George W. Bush, most of which I have
thrown out.  It doesn't begin to balance out the astounding junk about
Al Gore that fills the mainstream media, but it's still not right.

Speaking of the mainstream media, I heard one of the campaign's most
brazen episodes of media imbalance on National Public Radio over the
last couple of evenings.  On 10/26/00 they had a profile of Al Gore
whose main purpose was to turn his intelligence into a bad thing.
They accused him of showing off his smarts, called him a "smartypants",
and put on a right-wing former ABC reporter named Bob Zelnick to say
that even though Gore's intelligence is his greatest asset "on the
other hand he has a tendency to exaggerate and lose public trust, a
tendency to demonize opponents, and a tendency to look for ultimate
villains and ultimate solutions".  (That's my transcript, typed in
real time, so it may not be precise.)  What's most striking about
this passage is not its ugliness -- we're used to that now, and
if they're going to say ugly things about Bush too then at least
it's balanced.  What's most striking is that it's all backwards.
Gore does not have a tendency to exaggerate and lose public trust;
to the contrary, his opponents have a tendency to exaggerate about
him, and the media have a tendency to repeat the exaggerations,
thus undermining public trust.  All this has been documented here at
length.  Gore does not have a tendency to demonize opponents; it is
Gore's opponents who call him "evil", "a habitual liar", "ruthless",
lacking in honor and decency, and so on.  The worst his campaign has
called anyone is "bumbler", once, and maybe "arrogant" once too, and
he apologized for that.  He doesn't do that stuff.  Gore does point
at villains, as does his opponent, but "ultimate" villains?  Pat
Robertson routinely insinuates that his opponents are literally agents
of Satan.  That's looking for ultimate villains.  And "ultimate"
solutions?  What makes Gore's solutions any more "ultimate" than his

So we've got this twisted stuff on NPR.  What ugly stuff did they have
to say about George W. Bush the next night?  The whole point of the
profile on Bush was that he's not dumb; he's just "more interested in
people than books or ideas".  Once he meets those world leaders, then
he'll remember their names and their wives' names too.  Where NPR had
a right-wing hack commenting on Gore, it had Bush's long-time friend
and political aide talking about Bush.  We never do learn why the
ability to remember people's names is a substitute for an interest
in books or ideas -- this is a guy who has already caused two major
diplomatic incidents with his dim-witted comments on Kosovo and
Russia -- and while Bush's failed tax reform initiative is mentioned
in passing, there is nothing remotely approaching the harsh language
against Gore.  This is NPR, mind you, liberal left-wing NPR.  The
establishment has seen which way the wind is blowing for some time,
and a hard wind it is.


Some URL's.

election stuff

Gore's Too-Willing Executioners

Actuaries Fault Bush Plan

Surely This Has to Be a Bad Bush Dream

other stuff

Advertising on Internet Doesn't Click

Pig Flies First Class, Airline Embarrassed

European Meeting of Digital Counter-Cultures

Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection

Computers in Art and Design Education

Beware the ICANN Board Squatters

Net "Privacy" Bill Rewards Data Marketers

Business, Bandwidth May Dash Hopes of a Peer-to-Peer Utopia

Long Odds For Software Law

The Opening of the Evangelical Mind

Paul Krugman's New York Times columns

Eudora Plug-Ins

SDMI Challenge Information

Surveying the Digital Future

Ford Demonstrates New Devices

Uncovering the Dark Side of the World Wide Web

My Data, Mine to Keep Private

Namur Award for awareness of social implications of information technology

Lotus Notes Developer to Introduce a New Internet Tool