Several notes following up on past RRE topics: "redirect", spam, Lexis-
Nexis, the San Jose Mercury-News Contra-crack articles, and the RRE
advertisement I sent out, along with assorted opinions on other topics.

As a periodic reminder, answers to frequently asked questions about RRE,
including especially instructions for unsubscribing, can be found through
the RRE web page at:  This
URL can be found in the X-URL: field in the header of every RRE message.
Extra Special: The RRE FAQ now includes an explanation of what's wrong
with Eudora's "redirect" command, against which I am always fulminating.
It really is a menace.  Please do not ever use "redirect".  Really.

On Sunday night, the Internet underwent a fairly large spam, purporting
to originate from AOL and purporting to offer child pornography for sale.
Many people have reported this spam to AOL and to law enforcement.  I have
no facts about the message, but after reading it carefully I believe we
should hold open the possibility that it is a hoax, most likely intended
to defame the man whose name and address appear at the end of it.  Those
who assert that the Internet is a self-correcting system are encouraged
to explain how the Internet community and architecture are going to evolve
to prevent such occurrences from becoming routine as spamming software
proliferates.  We hear a lot about automatic mail filters, but I wonder
if these filters will work any better than automatic Web filters do.

You may recall that I sent out a call to RRE for actual examples of the
wildly inaccurate alerts that the Lexis-Nexis company claimed has been
posted "over and over" against its P-TRAK product.  All I received that
was even in the ballpark was (1) a version of the basic alert into which
someone had spliced the words "credit history", and (2) someone who
thought they saw the wildly inaccurate version on a few lists concerned
with sexual politics, but who wasn't sure.  That's it.  Despite much
effort, then, I have not been able to substantiate Lexis-Nexis' widely
publicized claim:

   Contrary to some messages that have been posted to some Internet
   discussion and news groups, the P-TRAK file does not contain any
   credit histories, bank account information, personal financial data,
   mother's maiden name or medical histories. This misinformation has
   been posted over and over again to various news groups.

A very small amount of misinformation (mother's maiden name instead
of individual's maiden name, and the name of the product) was posted
"over and over again to various news groups".  And a fraction of the much
more serious misinformation may have been posted to a few mailing lists.
But I can find no evidence that the more serious misinformation (credit
histories, bank account information, personal financial data, medical
histories) was posted "over and over again to various news groups".  What
is more, another RRE reader conducted an extensive search of Usenet back
when the alerts were still circulating, and after paging through hundreds
of alerts could find none that matched the Lexis-Nexis company's alarming
claims.  We've seen a lot of hysteria about false information and rumors
on the net.  But we should also take a closer look at the possibility that
this hysteria was just a rumor itself.

Over the last few days, a campaign has begun against the San Jose Mercury-
News' articles on the mysterious immunity from prosecution of the Contra
crack dealers in LA.  You may recall that the MN created a first-rate Web
site out of these articles, including piles of documentation, this site
was publicized on numerous mailing lists, including this one.  The first
salvo of the campaign against these articles (at least that I saw) was
in The Weekly Standard, whose argument was the article said nothing new
beyond the San Francisco Examiner's 1986 articles on the Contra-cocaine
connection.  (This article, subject of a massive campaign of organized
forgetting in its day, has somehow come back to life as taken-for-granted
common sense, by the same historical oblivion that enables Republicans to
criticize Bill Clinton for casting a blind eye on human rights abuses and
labor repression in Indonesia.)  This article's technique was simply to
ignore the MN's evidence.  This week, the Los Angeles Times and the New
York Times are both running articles on the matter.  The New York Times'
articles were just appalling.  One of them was a double-whammy, combining
the theme of rumors in the African American community with the theme of
rumors on the Internet.  African Americans were made out as just short
of irrational, and the Internet's capacity for democratic communication
outside official channels was once again portrayed as a Problem.  The
Times employed a technique that is pretty well characteristic of organized
forgetting campaigns: the article starts by talking about the MN series,
but just before announcing its evaluation it performs a sleight-of-hand,
switching from the actual claims made in the article (which are basically
omitted) to much wilder claims that "some people" believe.  It is then
announced that there is "little evidence" for assertions that were never
made and "no proof" of assertions for which extensive evidence has been
provided, and so forth.  The Los Angeles Times articles are more serious.
They are better focused on the MN series' real claims, but only relatively
speaking.  They do adduce some relevant evidence, but they also take
stuff at face value that's much less well documented than the MN's facts
were.  The latest development is that the MN has now been pressured
into permitting an outside investigation of its reporting.  They've even
been forced into groveling apologies for not reporting the CIA's denials,
as if the CIA's word on anything deserved the time of day.  Now, I don't
pretend to know where the truth lies.  But if these are the kinds of
tactics that are being arrayed against the MN series, then I am going to
err on the side of believing it until I see sober grown-ups presenting
a logical case to the contrary.  And until then, anybody who thinks that
Oliver North meant something by his handwritten notation about drug money
during the Iran-Contra episode has my blessing.  Right now, I think, would
be a good time to go to the video store and rent Tim Robbins' hilariously
funny election parody, "Bob Roberts", which makes much more sense in this
light.  Assuming, of course, that any copies of "Bob Roberts" still exist.

Recommendation: Amy Rigby, "Diary of a Mod Housewife" (Koch).  My friend
Gordon Clay, whose workshop on father issues I recommended in TNO 3(2),
is among other things a serious DJ and a major connoisseur of dance music.
He is also engaged in a cultural war against music whose lyrics include
unhealthy messages about relationships between people, e.g., the sorts of
"without you I'm nothing" and "if you leave me I'll die" types of messages
that people unconsciously absorb from the culture around them and then act
upon in ways that foul up their lives.  I think about this a lot when I
listen to popular music.  I'm prepared to admit that the lyrics that get
pumped into people's heads all day long may have, on average, gotten more
unhealthy in the last fifty years.  But it also seems much more possible
these days for people to write and record honest songs that report honest
feelings about their lives.  So, for example, let's take Amy Rigby's new
album "Diary of a Mod Housewife", and compare it to the phony love songs
that one could write and record forty years ago.  In making the transition
from rocker to housewife, Rigby said "I didn't want to fight about sex
and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song", and this
album is the result.  The themes are unsurprising -- fighting, jealousy,
and other such downsides of love.  But then the themes of popular music
are rarely surprising.  What is surprising is that contemporary popular
music, in the space from folk to rock, provides the artistic voculabulary
in which the usually trivialized experiences of a housewife can be treated
with the same level of rocking poetry -- the same dignity -- as anyone
else's experiences, with good phrases, good hooks, and good production.
Despite its array of moods and styles, the album is suffused with a
stable, optimistic attitude -- annoyance on the surface and gentleness
underneath.  Rigby loves her husband and wants to stay married to him,
but she's sure as hell going to sing about the stuff that can happen in a
marriage -- getting the silent treatment, for example, or the times when
her imagination wanders off toward someone else for a while.  The result
is, in my opinion, just terrific.  Not always happy, but always, as Gordon
says, in integrity.

Some people responded in unkind ways to the forwardable RRE advertisement
that I posted the other day.  They specifically accused me of wanting to
go commercial.  This is a persistent idea, particularly among those fans
of the free market who flatly refuse to believe that anything good can
happen except when money changes hands.  But there are several powerful
reasons why it would be a bad idea to turn RRE into a commercial service:

  (1) Internet payment systems are still primitive enough that I would
      have to set myself up to handle credit cards, a hassle.
  (2) RRE works in large part because of its large subscriber base, who
      contribute most of the stuff that I send to it.  If I charged money,
      80% of the subscribers would disappear and the list would get worse
      as a result.  This is called a network externality: when more people
      sign up, the existing subscribers benefit.
  (3) Much of the stuff I send to RRE is copyrighted, and it would become
      harder to get copyright permission to forward a message if I wanted
      to make money on it.
  (4) Running this list is not free.  UCSD subsidizes it with technical
      support because it has a service mission as a public university.
      Mike Corrigan wrote the custom software for RRE out of the goodness
      of his heart.  If the list went commercial, I would have to pay for
      that kind of support before I saw any profit.

The bottom line is that RRE works because it is free.  It is part of what
Howard Rheingold calls the "gift economy" of the Internet.  Why isn't gift
economics taught in school?  Perhaps because its seeming optimism about
human nature violates economic dogma.  I guess only silly people believe,
as I do, that human health and well-being consist precisely in the ability
to freely give and receive.  I threw in the reference to network economics
up there in point number 2 to lend a little academic respectability to
the idea of giving stuff away free.  But another approach is to see giving
stuff away as simply how decent people behave toward one another.  That's
not to say that it's entirely altruistic, simply a matter of dumping stuff
into a black hole.  I give away my editorial efforts, and the gift comes
back around: connections, speaking engagements, a reputation as a quotable
person, and so on.  The point is that I don't get that stuff through a
prespecified quid pro quo, but simply through the free, aboveboard giving-
and-receiving that -- economic ideology and get-rich-quick power fantasies
notwithstanding -- is the true way of all things.

Speaking of economics, I have encountered many people lately talking about
the supposed fact that information is a public good.  These people often
make valuable observations, but I question their premise: I don't think
that information is a public good because I don't think that information
is a good.  A public good is a good (a commmodity, a service, something
that people value) that has two properties: nonrivalrous use, meaning
that I can use it without thereby preventing you from using it as well
(i.e., we need not be rivals for its use), and nonexcludability, meaning
that regardless of whether I use it or not, I still cannot prevent you
from using it (i.e., we could not be rivals for its use if we wanted to).
Lighthouse services are a standard example, although Coase argues that
lighthouses have in fact been provided commercially in the past.  The idea
that information is a public good makes some sense: since information can
be copied for near-zero marginal cost, the argument goes, lots of people
can use the same information simultaneous without affect anybody else's
use of it.  Of course, being a public good is a matter of degree: I can
try to keep information secret, for example.  And some information cannot
be profitably used by more than one party, for example information about
the location of buried treasure, which is valuable to the first person who
acts on it and worthless to everyone else.  Nonetheless, as I say, lots
and lots of useful insights follow from the basic argument, and you should
stay tuned to RRE for recommendations of the various people's publications
on the subject as they start to appear in print.  My problem, as I say, is
that information is not a good.  Information is really a kind of Platonic
ideal that does not exist except when incarnated as the form of something
in particular.  One never encounters information-as-such, any more than
one encounters the Platonic number thirteen or the Platonic triangle.
What one encounters is information embodied in a given medium, in a given
format, at a given place and time.  That is the potential good: a video
tape of a movie, a floppy disk of a program, a book with the words of a
play printed in it, a computer screen with a news article displayed on it,
and so on.  It is surely true that market processes and technologies are
trying very hard to lift the information out of the medium, making it as
mobile as possible -- trying to make Platonic ideas into real, practically
consequential things.  But that will always be impossible, and we need to
keep in mind that concrete economic and legal issues will always arise in
relation to embodied, incarnated information, not information as an ideal
or an abstraction.  The illustion of Platonic information is particularly
strong during this period -- temporary to be sure -- when the Internet
has grown big enough to have economic consequences but technologically
primitive enough not to have well-established technical standards for
monetary transactions and intellectual property rights management.