History moves fast sometimes

I spent four years studying history in college, and the big takeaway was that progress is a slow game that requires the ability to get up after getting knocked down, over and over.

A slightly worn American flag flutters in a spring breeze.

The exceptions to that rule are rare and delightful. My freshman year, we watched Communism crumble across Eastern Europe so fast that one professor told us to put aside the assigned textbooks and instead read the paper each morning and come prepared to discuss the latest news from Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and beyond.

The past week in America has felt like that. Within a few days, the vile cruelty of the Charleston shootings finally awakened many Southern whites to the reality that the Confederate battle flag is far too stained by hate to deserve a place of honor on the people’s property. It and other salutes to the Confederacy’s war against the United States now look set to vanish from government facilities as fast as statues of Lenin in the Warsaw Pact’s client states.

(Note to Virginia: Now would be a swell time to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve already e-mailed my state senator and delegate to say as much.)

And then on Friday, less than two years after throwing out the insultingly ill-named “Defense of Marriage Act,” the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law. This case of justice arriving like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said, could not have happened without decades of effort.

And yet: It came less than 11 years after Karl Rove made ballot initiatives against gay marriage part of a winning Republican strategy. It was nine years since a Virginia constitutional amendment banning any state recognition of same-sex unions passed the commonwealth by a large margin. It happened seven years after Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, and people like me didn’t think that was a huge problem. Not even a year and a half ago, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who refused to defend the gay-marriage ban he’d voted for in 2006) defeated his opponent Mark Obenshain (who had not changed his mind about that now-defunct law) by only 907 votes.

Thinking about all that, I sent a celebratory e-mail to my wife with a single-character subject line: “=”

The NFL is so hard to like these days

There’s a football game happening tomorrow night, and like many of you I plan to watch it mainly for the commercials.

Part of that is my scant emotional investment in either team (that said, I’m unquestionably more tired of reading about the Patriots). But the real reason is that the National Football League has become such a difficult corporate entity to support.

I’m not talking about the sport of football overall. It’s a fun game to watch on TV, and I’ve enjoyed the few games I’ve seen in person–some here, courtesy of tickets the Post would occasionally hand out, a few in Charlottesville on pre-parenthood trips with my wife to her alma mater.

NFL ball and ticketBut the NFL itself, that’s another thing. Even by the standards of pro sports in America, there’s so much not to like.

It would be easy to start with the league’s lax responses to the domestic violence committed by some players. Or I could lead off with the player concussions and the league’s decades-long denial of that problem; the more I mull over that, the more I start wondering if (as Tim Carmody wrote persuasively on Friday) football might be the new boxing and on the same path out of the mainstream.

I could begin with the hapless local franchise and everything wrong there: the name, the crummy stadium, the losing records, the abysmal personnel decisions, the deepening despair among a beaten-down fan base, the owner who seems convinced that his own actions bear no relation to all these problems… but that would be too easy.

The NFL’s vaingloriousness also irritates me. We’ll get no end of it tomorrow, but I also see this inflated sense of self-worth on display in things like security-theater rules about what you can bring into an NFL stadium that are to ballpark-access rules what TSA airport security is to boarding Amtrak.

But what really sticks in my craw is how the NFL is the gift that keeps on taking.

Its teams play in enormous stadiums funded at colossal taxpayer expense–$4.7 billion on the 20 new facilities opened since 1997–that usually sit empty except when these largely car-centric properties create massive traffic jams on game day.

On those days, it’s to the NFL’s credit that you can watch on free broadcast TV. But then the league insists on blackout rules that keep games off the air if the team doesn’t sell enough of what are on average the most expensive tickets in pro sports. And it wants the government to back up this business model. A decade ago, the NFL wanted veto power over a new TiVo sharing feature to protect its blackouts, and it only recently lost the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of them.

The runup to the Super Bowl has once again shown the effectiveness of the NFL’s control-freak trademark enforcement. Even though it’s legal for advertisers to refer to the Super Bowl in an ad in the same way they might name-check the local franchise, they all call it the “Big Game” lest the NFL’s lawyers send a nastygram. Good thing the NFL gave on trying to trademark the term “Big Game”!

And as the NFL continues to print money, it benefits from non-profit status and the modest tax breaks that entails–something MLB gave up in 2007 and the NBA has never claimed.

So, sure, I’ll watch tomorrow night if for no other reason than maintaining my cultural literacy. But I’ll also be thinking that 18 days later, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

I voted. You should too. Will this help?

 

(Why? See this post from 2012. Sample quote: “Because if you don’t vote, you invite the stupidest voter in your precinct to cast a ballot on your behalf.”)

A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

Don’t blame this nonsense on “Washington” or “Congress”

Most of the federal government shut down at midnight, and that sucks for multiple reasons. (Beyond the basic breakdown in democratic government on display, the shutdown has cut off a few friends from their next paychecks.) But spare me the ritual outrage over the evils of “Washington” or “Congress.”

Capitol stop-sign barrierThe former is not just a political abstraction but a city of 632,323 people. Most of the residents of the District of Columbia have nothing to do with Congress, and none have voting representation there.

As for the latter, there’s a great deal to dislike in the deliberative body that meets and occasionally gets actual work done a few blocks south of Union Station. But it’s an epic feat of false equivalency to blame the shutdown on some bipartisan failure to cooperate.

One part of one party in one house of Congress made it happen. That segment of House Republicans deeply loathes the Affordable Care Act (would that all these advocates of individual liberty were also at the barricades over the NSA’s subversion of the Fourth Amendment), have already staged dozens of stunt votes against it, and yesterday led the rest of the House GOP to hold up the entire federal budget over a policy that won a mandate in two presidential elections and survived the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.

That won’t work, on account of the simple math of a Democratic majority in the Senate and the absence of a veto-proof Republican majority in the House. That’s normally a cue to compromise. So is the political reality that every minute that ACA insurance signups continue in overwhelming numbers–oh, yes, that’s one thing the government shutdown didn’t stop–Obamacare collects more constituents.

In days or weeks, I trust that enough of the House will realize this–hopefully before the true  believers there shove the country into default. In the meantime, don’t mistake those in the grip of a preexisting condition some have diagnosed as Obamacare Derangement Syndrome for the entirety of Congress, and please leave the good city of Washington right out of this.

Potential exposure is not forced exposure

One of the foremost foes of intellectual-property extortion is shutting down. Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones announced this morning in a post, titled “Forced Exposure,” that the possibility of NSA surveillance of her e-mail means she can’t trust e-mail as a means of collaborative input, and therefore the blog must end.

Groklaw signoffThey tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it’s encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.

This news bothers me deeply–because Groklaw has provided an immense public service in collecting and presenting evidence of grotesque IP abuse such as the SCO Group’s prolonged and mendacious attempt to claim copyright over code in the Linux operating system, and because I don’t like finding fault with somebody whose work I and so many other people admire.

But look: Potential exposure is not forced exposure. Or if it is, it’s always been there. Yes, the NSA might be reading my e-mail and PJ’s. But keyloggers planted by the Russian mob might be reading it too. The NSA might have the ability to crack PGP encryption in five years–or they could have had it all along and haven’t told us, or they could decide to ignore that five-year timeline. Your own computer might be airtight, but what about the machines of all your correspondents? For that matter, how can you be sure you’ve maintained your privacy offline without going into Kaczysnki-esque seclusion?

If your reaction to those possibilities is to declare that all is lost and that you should “get off the Internet to the degree that it’s possible,” as PJ wrote in this morning’s post, then how are you not tumbling into the same existential fear that the defenders of the surveillance state sometimes seem to think is the right and proper state of a compliant citizenry?

I don’t know PJ (friends whose judgment I trust do and profess a deep respect for her) and only have a vague notion of what her life has been like running Groklaw (it’s entailed being the target of an unhealthy dose of character assassination). But with my limited knowledge I can’t endorse her stance. I wish she’d at least found somebody else to run the site: While we’re having this hypothetical discussion, very real copyright and patent extortion is going on, and Groklaw was doing a damn good job of exposing it.

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?