Desert of My Real Life

{December 28, 2009}   Even More Security Theater

By now, you’ve probably heard about the thwarted terror attack on a flight bound for Detroit.  If you haven’t heard details, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to light his underwear on fire to set off explosives (the same explosives that Richard Reid–the shoe bomber–used).  He failed to ignite the explosive materials and passengers and crew jumped him and put out the fire.

We’re still living with the legacy of Richard Reid’s attack.  Every time we fly, we have to take our shoes off for special screening.  So I would have expected the TSA response to Abdulmutallab’s thwarted attack to be … well, that every time we fly, we all have to take our underwear off for special screening.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?  But imagine the outcry from the public if we had to get naked in order to fly.  And so, naturally, that is NOT the TSA response.  Instead, the TSA has come out with a set of rules that make it incredibly obvious that none of this is about actually making us safer but is instead about responding in some way, in any way, so that people FEEL safer.

What are the rules?  Most of them have to do with limiting passenger behavior during the last hour of a flight.  Why the last hour?  Because that is when Abdulmutallab chose to initiate his attack.  There is absolutely nothing special about the last hour of a flight.  Why not the first hour of a flight?  Because this is about security theater rather than actual security.  So, during the last hour of a flight, you may not be able to use the bathroom or access your carry-on baggage or (and this is my favorite rule) have a pillow or blanket over your lap.  Because that’s where your underwear is, of course.

Feel safe?

{December 26, 2009}   Whose Property Is It?

When I was in graduate school more than 12 years ago, a new company opened up in Tallahassee that caught the attention of many students (and probably faculty members) at Florida State University.  I don’t remember the name of the company but I do remember its business purpose.  The company would pay students to take notes in their classes and then would sell those lecture notes to other students in those same classes.  This service seems like a waste of money to me since any student already paying tuition for the class could simply create his or her own version of the lecture notes.  If they went to class, that is.  But I suppose the prime target of this company could be those students who haven’t yet learned to take good notes themselves.  In any case, that business all those years ago in Tallahassee appeared to do very well in the face of some concerns expressed by various factions in the academic community.

I hadn’t thought about this company in years.  Recently, however, this kind of business is much in the news.  In 2008, Michael Moulton, a faculty member at the University of Florida, filed a lawsuit against a company called Einstein’s Notes, which sells what they call “study kits” for classes at UF.  Moulton, and the company that publishes the textbook that he has written, claim that the material in Moulton’s lectures is copyrighted and therefore, by publishing student lecture notes without his permission, Einstein’s Notes is violating that copyright.  The issue is a difficult one, especially because it is the material created by the student that is being sold by Einstein’s Notes rather than any written material created by the faculty member.

Copyright provides the author of a work the exclusive right to control the publication, distribution, and adaptation of that work.  An idea cannot be copyrighted.  Instead, copyright extends only to “any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete and fixed in a medium.”  This is key to these lawsuits, it seems, since the gray area seems to lie in whether the lecture itself is “fixed in a medium.”  In Moulton’s case, it just might be.  Moulton has published two textbooks based on his lectures and uses them in his classes.  In addition, his publisher sells its own version of lecture notes for his classes.  So when a student takes notes in a class based on the lecture, although those notes are not a “copy” of the professor’s lecture, they are derivative of the lecture.  That is, those notes are a kind of adaptation of the professor’s lecture.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer but this is how I understand the issues in the Moulton case.  I think things get murkier when a faculty member has not “published” anything related to his or her lectures, however.  Moulton’s lawyer doesn’t seem to think so.  He says that if a faculty member were to write out the high points of the lecture on a transparency and display them to the class via overhead projector, that fixes the material in a medium.  If a student then bases her lecture notes on that transparency, her notes are a derivative of material that is copyrighted and therefore, is not eligible to be sold without the faculty member’s permission.  The lawyer doesn’t say anything about whether material written on the chalkboard is fixed in a medium.

As an academic at a public university, I believe that education should be available as cheaply as possible for as wide an audience as possible.  For example, I teach a computer literacy class for free for senior citizens and get enormous pleasure from seeing them learn.  I would, however, have a problem if someone took my “lecture notes” from that class and sold them on the Internet without my permission.  The material that I teach in that class is basic information, available in a variety of forms from a variety of sources.  There’s nothing in the content that could be considered new information.  What is original about the class is the way the material is organized and presented.  Many of the senior citizens tell me stories about taking beginning computer classes elsewhere and feeling overwhelmed, lost and discouraged.  This class, they tell me, is the first time they’ve felt as though they actually could learn to use a computer to send and receive email and to search the Internet.  So there is definitely something unique and original about the way I’m presenting the information.  Why would I have a problem if this material was made available through a company like Einstein’s Notes?  It isn’t because I don’t want the material to be made available.  Instead, it’s because I don’t think Einstein’s Notes should make money from my work without getting my permission and without compensating me.

Moulton’s lawyer points out that Einstein’s Notes puts a copyright notice on the lecture notes that they sell.  In other words, the company sells the lecture notes but then attempts to prevent those notes from being copied.  They are claiming copyright on material that they played no part in creating.  In what world does that make sense?

{December 17, 2009}   Security Theater Revisited

I’ve written about the theater of airport security before.  Now here is an excellent piece written by an ex-cop about why airport screening fails to keep us safe and is really all about the illusion of security.  Her interesting observation at the end of the piece is that she believes more and more people are beginning to realize it’s all an illusion and that will mean that fewer people will be willing to comply.

{December 11, 2009}   Kindle Again

I’ve been talking about the Kindle for over a year.  I was first intrigued by the idea of the technology a year and half ago on a trip to Spain when I ran out of reading material on the plane.  I wasn’t convinced to buy the Kindle then because of price issues and because of the fact that Amazon seems to have messed up some copyright issues.  But finally, I caved and bought one about two weeks ago.  I’ve used it a fair amount in these two weeks and I have mostly positive, although mixed, reviews of it.

I have mostly loved the Kindle.  I have read my first non-fiction book already.  I have begun my first novel which I am loving reading on the device.  I love being able to browse the Kindle store at any moment.  The device has been the subject of conversation with a variety of people, wherever I have chosen to use it.  My one area of disappointment has to do with reading the Boston Globe.  To subscribe to the Globe on the Kindle is $9.99 per month.  To buy the paper version of the Globe is significantly more expensive than that.  If I bought just the Sunday Globe each month, it would cost $4 per week.  Each daily paper is $1.50 up here in NH.  To buy any single issue of the Globe on the Kindle is only $.49.  So I thought it would be a great deal to read the Globe using this device.  The problem is that for your $.49, you do not get the entire Globe.  This has been a great disappointment for me. 

I almost always buy the Globe on Sundays and I am especially fond of the Ideas/Books section.  The Kindle version of the Sunday paper is significantly limited, however.  I have decided that I will buy the paper version of the Sunday Globe so the Kindle is useless for that purpose.

All in all, I am very happy with my Kindle.  I did, however, have to purchase a case for it that makes it feel as though I am reading an actual book.  Some aesthetics are important.

{December 7, 2009}   Twitter Followers

My favorite part of FaceBook is the status update.  I love to see what my friends are saying about their activities.  As a result, I really like Twitter.  For me, the perfect use of both is to combine them.  So I use Twitter to update my FaceBook status on a regular basis. 

I’ve been noticing that I regularly get new Twitter followers and I’ve often wondered why and how those new followers have found me.  I got my answer yesterday.  A friend was hosting a poker party yesterday afternoon.  In anticipation, I changed my status (via Twitter) to “Cathie is ready for some poker.”  Within minutes, a new follower, called “CPL Poker Podcast”, appeared.  The only way this could have possibly happened is if CPL Poker Podcast was set up to automatically follow anyone who used the word “poker” in their Twitter updates.

So that explains it.  There must be a way to set up your Twitter account to automatically look for updates with certain key words in them and then automatically follow the users who are posting those updates.  The hope, of course, is that when followed, the user will become a follower of those that are following her.  Interesting strategy.

et cetera