26 December 2013

Eat the Big End of the Link Sausage First

See an old book to understand why.

  • Charlie Stross offers up a disturbingly accurate allegorical view of the small-computer operating-system "wars" as religious conflict, but doesn't actually go far enough... or note the casualties. Neither does he note the vicious suppression of those who sought individual enlightenment through direct access to the machine bypassing the operating system; or the various interface-device effects on readings of (and function of) the holy writ; or, indeed, the multipart/multiaspect nature of the underlying deity processor. And for those errors alone, I declare heresy! Call the Spanish Inquisition (or local equivalent)! Most-Significant-Byte first, and all others are heretics who must be destroyed!
  • As a rather definitive example of what is wrong with both the attitude and competence of the TSA, on the one hand, and the doctrine of qualified immunity on the other, consider this set of circumstances: A college student takes a course in the foreign language of another nation, then follows up by spending a few months over there for the explicit (and approved by the college) purpose of improving his competency in that language. Although this is bad pedagogy, he makes up a set of flash cards full of words frequently found in contemporary conversation and news in that nation (but which would probably not be found in his textbook's abbreviated vocabulary section). Back in the US, he is pulled over by the TSA because he's been flagged as having visited that foreign nation. His flash cards (and a few other odds and ends) result in his being treated as a prospective terrorist... because among those words, on Arabic-language flash cards, are terms one finds in the news like "bomb" and "terrorist" that are not in the vocabulary sections of either of the major Arabic textbooks used in US college-level Arabic courses, but that he would undoubtedly encounter in the news. On top of that, he was carrying an English-language book critical of US policy in the Middle East. Naturally enough, he sued for unlawful detention after a five-hour lockup.

    The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that his suit cannot proceed, because both the local cop and the TSA officials involved had "qualified immunity" — that nothing they did (locking someone up for essentially studying a foreign language and culture relevant to his major and making the "mistake" of taking his study materials to the bloody airport) was so far outside the bounds of established Fourth Amendment law that they should have known better. George v. Rehiel, No. 11–4292 (3d Cir. 24 Dec. 2013). So now — at least in the Third Circuit, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the US Virgin Islands — one should be really careful what language one studies when heading through any of its airports. The TSA appears to have gone beyond "racial profiling" to "language profiling"... which would cause me and my family some rather significant problems, as according to Chief Judge McKee it would have been dereliction of duty to not pull a passenger out for examination if he was "caught" carrying flashcards that included terms of violence likely to be found in local newspapers in a foreign land. Needless to say, neither I nor any family member will be going through the Philadelphia airport any time soon, as we have this regrettable tendency to take foreign-language materials with us on long flights because we find it relaxing to while away the hours in a tin can learning (or relearning) something.

    Leaving aside the Mystery Security Theatre 3000 aspects of the case, the underlying problem is the entire doctrine of "qualified immunity." A cop (or other government actor) is entitled to qualified immunity while performing his/her duties if there was no clearly established law demonstrating that the particular conduct was unconstitutional. For example, there's clearly established law that shooting a nonfleeing, nonresisting suspect is an excessive use of force and constitutional violation, so a cop who did so would not be entitled to qualified immunity. Conversely, it generally takes about a decade (and often more) for a case concerning relatively new circumstances to work its way far enough through the appellate system for a ruling at all, just as here (the appeal was filed in 2011). And although Judges McKee, Jordan, and Vanaskie appear to have followed the precedent they have to follow in reaching this ruling, they got it egregiously wrong... because the entire doctrine is indefensible (and ignores that an insurer, not the individual officers, would ultimately pay out any compensation).

    Even more disturbing, though, is the deeper question of why the TSA people examined a passenger's reading material in the first place. That, in reality, is what happened here. It's really not very far from Mr George's detention to a detention because one had a souvenir copy of Al-Ghad picked up in the Amman airport, or a theatre review for avant-garde Shakespeare in Tehran, or a browser history/bookmark list showing that one routinely checked the weather and local traffic reports in Jiddah, or a record in a database (created and accessed without notice) of one's reading habits. Isolationism and xenophobia have some really ugly corollaries, don't they? And it's not far from those circumstances to a bible-belt deputy sherriff's destructive search of a car after a routine traffic stop because there was a copy of a pro-atheism book in plain view on the front seat...

  • At least Mr George suffered only a five-hour arrest instead of implicit and indefinite banishment.
  • Kris Rusch notes some of the many problems with the way that commercial publishing treats books. One point that bears some additional emphasis is that she correctly calls the author/commercial publisher transaction a "license", not a "sale." This has some subtle yet profound implications for the author-publisher relationship since it became law on 01 January 1978 that have seldom been acknowledged in the American literary community. A licensor retains ownership of everything; a seller does not. The underlying law (whether common law of contracts, the arguably-inapplicable Uniform Commercial Code, or other statutory schemes like the almost-simultaneously-enacted Bankruptcy Code of 1978) is subtly different in a licensing arrangement than in a sales arrangement. The burdens of proof and duties of the parties are different in a licensor/licensee dispute than in a seller/deferred-compensation purchaser dispute. Indeed, even the tax treatments are/should be different (although the tax bill will in most circumstances remain the same, or close to the same)!

    Whether the "cause" of this failure of communication is a Macchiavellian scheme by commercial publishers to keep everyone focused on the seller/purchaser paradigm (which, legally, favors the purchaser more than does the licensor/licensee paradigm) or that the commercial publishers don't know what they're doing is largely irrelevant. I'm sure that there is some malice in there — there certainly is in particular instances when the publisher gets caught out — but I'm more generally inclined to ascribe this problem to ignorance. The particular variety of ignorance is encouraged by the business-school presumption of complete, or at least nearly complete, fungibility: That every method and principle of management, accounting, marketing, sales, etc. applies regardless of the context. But by definition books are not fungible... or at least not in the sense that ladies' handbags are fungible, or men's dress shoes are fungible, or compact automobiles are fungible. The willingness of prospective purchasers to replace their preferred book with another, merely due to price and/or availability, is at least an order of magnitude less than for purses or shoes or cars. That's not to say that I might not choose to buy a mass-market paperback copy of Joe Author's latest murder mystery in an airport bookstore, instead of the latest casebound memoir by Jane Celebrity (whether or not it was — reflexively, ironically — ghostwritten by Joe Author!) based upon the price difference, or the form factor, for particular purposes. It is to say that I won't do so blind, without having already made the decision before seeing any aspect of marketing that the one is an acceptable substitute for the other in this context. However, virtually every accounting and management and marketing system in commercial publishing since the wave of outside-investor-driven consolidation began in 1957 presumes precisely the opposite — not just for me, but for the mass of readers, against all evidence to the contrary.

  • Kris's spousal unit Dean Wesley Smith offers some valuable — if not incontrovertible — insight on trade/category fiction publishing in 2013 that indirectly reveals another aspect of the fungibility problem. I carefully chose the two examples I used immediately above to be the products of two entirely different publishing industries. It's not just the works themselves that are not fungible, or even just the audiences. The fundamental structure and economics of the various publishing industries prevent fungibilitiy. Consider, for example, the expected in-print life of a mass-market paperback original work of category fiction. It doesn't matter whether it is a thriller, a romance novel, the latest Tolkein knockoff, whatever. Virtually nothing in its economics, printing, distribution, warehousing, fulfillment, marketing, sales, or accounting will be comparable to that big-advance celebrity memoir... let alone a work of serious nonfiction, or a coffee-table art book. There is nonetheless a substantial pretense that it is.
  • Last for now, I offer a rather disparaging and disgusted evaluation of the so-called "war on Christmas" and "persecution of Christians" meme that is always so strident at this time of the year. Let's not forget that Jesus was a Jew and was — according to the various scriptures accepted as authentic by Christianity — persecuted as a Jew. <SARCASM> Perhaps the main reason that anti-Jewish persecution doesn't produce the same number of incidents of "persecution" that anti-Christian "persecution" does today is that Christians killed/enabled the persecution of so many European Jews over the last eleven centuries, and in particular the seventeenth and mid-twentieth centuries. There just aren't as many potential victims remaining to be persecuted because they and their descendants are already dead. </SARCASM> And if you think persecution of any of the organized religions is bad, try being an athiest — everybody feels justified in persecuting athiests for our unbelief!