Fighting Spam

Today I had a speaking engagement on combating unsolicited junkmail (spam). It was one of my first opportunities to speak about this topic to a public audience, and I was glad for the chance to share all of the knowledge I've accumulated about what is increasingly the bane of the Internet. A lot of people seem to be content to hit the delete key as they sort through their e-mail, but I think many are realizing that this approach doesn't "scale" well -- insert here numerous statistics about how much it costs and will cost in lost productivity, abused resources, deaths of baby seals, etc. The participants in my seminar were thirsty for details about the phenomenon and how to make it go away. I think the complexity of the issue can be surprising to some, so end-user education is one of the best things one can do to address the problem.

Any way you look at it, spam sucks, and it's not going away. As it becomes more of a problem, folks will look for better solutions, and I'm glad that I'm involved in that effort.

Trying out blogging

I've resisted the weblogging phenomenon as long as I could, mostly because I knew I would obsess over doing it right once I started. You're now reading the initial stages of that obsession: announcing that I'm blogging within a blog. Okay.

Anyway, it's not my intention or desire to spew random and intimate facts about my personal life that might make both of us uncomfortable next time we see each other. Rather, I'm looking forward to using one of the most casual mediums available to publish whatever thoughts I'm tossing around on a given day without committing to writing a formal essay or publishing a whole separate web page on my site. Maybe this is a product of laziness, but I wasn't doing a lot of public writing anyway, so let's see how it goes.

The Grill

I have this problem with impulsiveness. On Sunday, Carrie and I were sitting in the park, soaking up some of the first real sun of the season, and we reflected on how nice it would be to grill out that night. Stating what I thought was a minor detail, I noted that we did not, in fact, possess a grill.

No problem! The Modern American Way dictates that even though it's 6 PM on a Sunday evening, one should still be able to go from soup to nuts, no grill in sight to happily grilling out, with just a few stops at your handy neighborhood megastore.
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On the Nature of Civil Protest

I wrote this in reflection upon a conversation I had with a friend who was heading off for a weekend of protesting against the U.S. Government's "School of the Americas". There was the potential that my friend would be arrested, but there was also the general sense that it would be an exhausting and draining event. I asked her about why she was doing it, and a wonderful conversation ensued. These are some of the thoughts that remain. It's not done yet, thus the weak ending.

In every good conversation, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to communicate their thoughts, share their ideas, and help the other participants to understand what they are trying to say. The conversation takes place because all of the participants recognize the significance and benefit of engaging in conversation with the other participants to communicate but also for the sake of conversation itself. The conversation is able to take place because all of the participants recognize that the other participants share the desire to engage in conversation.

In every good argument or debate, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to convince the other participants that one view on a particular issue or series of issues is more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another view on the same issue or series of issues. The participants in an argument attempt to achieve this goal by explaining and detailing the point of view that they support in the context of opposing or refuting the points of view of the other participants, or sometimes affirming some parts and opposing other parts of a generally opposing point of view. Arguments and debates take place because participants recognize the opportunity to gain from discovering or acknowledging a particular point of view as more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another, whether it be the gain of personal knowledge, argumentative victory over another participant, or some other form of gain (not necessarily a positive gain).

Arguments are able to take place because participants recognize a need or desire to engage in the process of attempting to determine a more correct or appropriate point of view on a particular issue. This need or desire can arise from external pressures, personal passion about the issue or the argument itself (sometimes leading to physical combat), mechanical process, or any number of other sources. In all cases, participants recognize one or more of the other participants as being worthy of engaging in the argument or debate; they accept that the participants have a valid place in the process of argument, they recognize that the argument or debate has the potential to benefit themselves and possibly the other participants, and acknowledge respect (or present a façade of respect) that the other participants are suitably equipped to engage in the argument.

In every protest or act of civil disobedience, the participants making the protest or committing the act of civil disobedience exhibit a mutual desire to express an opinion about a particular issue or series of issues. The nature of protest and civil disobedience do not necessarily require that the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the views being protested against voluntarily participate in the event or even recognize the event as a valid "conversation" or "argument" as they were defined above. In this sense, it is not a conversation between two or more willing participants, but only an act of expression by participants representing only one point of view, directed at the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the opposing views.

This may be the case for several reasons. The opposing party may have refused the request of the participants to engage in a conversation or debate on a particular issue. The participants may have previously engaged in a conversation or argument that did not reach conclusion satisfactory to one or more of the participants. The protesters may desire to surprise or intimidate the opposing participants by initiating the protest or act of civil disobedience without advance notice. The protestors may not feel that they have available to them appropriate means by which to engage in a conversation or argument with the opposing parties, due to various power structures, logistical concerns such as time and place, or other factors.

By engaging in protest or acts of civil disobedience, these participants do, however, make the opposing parties a part of the conversation or argument, albeit unwillingly, in the following manner:

  1. The protesters imply a degree of responsibility for engaging in a conversation or acting lies with the opposing party;
  2. The protesters acknowledge that the opposing party is the most suited for taking on the role as an authoritative participant in a discussion on the issues in dispute;
  3. The protesters acknowledge the opposing party's authority or right or obligation to deal with the issues in dispute.

There are negative consequences associated with this approach to a conversation or argument. Because the opposing parties may not desire to be unwilling participants, they may react to the acts of protest or civil disobedience unfavorably. The structures (governmental, social, or otherwise) of the location in which the protest takes place may require or facilitate that the protesters` actions be halted or oppressed. Protesters or persons performing acts of civil disobedience may be subject to immediate consequences such as incarceration, injury, and death, or long-term consequences such as social displacement, internal conflict, or others.

In the sense that some participants are brought in unwillingly, protest or civil disobedience happens because the protestors recognize the potential for their actions to directly or indirectly impact the views and actions of the opposing parties. By participating in protest or civil disobedience, the participants exhibit a degree of respect for the opposing party to recognize, process, acknowledge, and act as a result of this impact. While the protesters may not necessarily place all responsibility for such processing and/or action with the opposing party, the notion of expectations between participants (be they willingly so or not) does arise.

Protest or civil disobedience are appropriate, then, when the potential for this impact on opposing parties outweighs the potential negative consequences of action. Protest or civil disobedience is successful when the opposing parties become willing participants in the conversation or argument about the issues at hand because they have recognized the nature or depth of the impact on them.

Weighing the Value of Life

I think that one of the hardest things a person can be asked to do is confront the value of their own life weighed against that of the world around them. But we see the tensions of this confrontation everywhere - balancing our self-interest against our service to others; balancing our concept of the good life against the survival of other species and the environment they live in; balancing our intense love for a small group of people against the thousands of neglected and unloved that die in some unknown place.

Last night, I saw one of the recent movies to come out about wars and the nature of the experience for those fighting in them. This one was about Vietnam, and it did an amazing job of contrasting the emotion and intensity of individual participants (American and Vietnamese) against vast scenes of death and destruction, hundreds of lives being ended violently and quickly and without prejudice. But the overall feeling I walk away with is awe at the magnitude of the loss of life. The movie tells us that loss of life on this scale can be worthwhile - that sacrificing spouses and parents, hundreds at a time, is sometimes necessary. And, perhaps unfortunately, this is the message that is absorbed from these films, more so than the sense that the loss of any particular man or woman is in itself a horrible tragedy. For who can bear the burden of reflecting on the pain and sadness of any and every widow and widower, son and daughter, mother and father that would hold their loved one no more?

When I wake up this morning, I go into the kitchen and see on the front page of the paper that a local high school student has died in a car accident. The picture on the front is of my housemate Charlie, a volunteer firefighter, wading around a half-sunk, overturned car in an icy creek. Charlie says that the shot was taken right before he went under to try to find the kid. We talk about the rescue effort, how cold it was, and how sad it is. "Poor kid." Thinking about the shock and the sadness and the sense of loss that his friends and family will experience breaks my heart as I sit and stare at the words on the page.

But how can I put it into context, how can I think about the loss in terms of all the loss that was experienced that day, even in that hour, around the world? How can that tragedy be weighed against images of boys the same age as the accident victim being shot, stabbed, blown up, and burned as they run through the forest fighting for a country that will notify their next of kin via telegram delivered by taxicab?

At either extreme, the value of life is sharply more understandable than in the relatively mundane existence that is common in the middle. There is the sense that I am doing an injustice to that boy and those soldiers by worrying about my plans for the summer, stressing over too many meetings, pondering my weight and my exercise regimen. I know that I may never have an opportunity to truly experience the appreciation of simply being alive because I may never understand how good life is, and how easily it slips away.

The resolution, it would seem, might come in the form of relativism - the sense that the value of our lives can only be completely known when taken in the context of those around us who we love, fight for, and miss when they are gone. It is too cold to say that because life HAS been lost on massive scales in the past, the value of an individual life is decreased. But neither does it feel right to say that we must all mourn deeply and at length over the loss of every stranger...again, who can bear that burden?

Even in relativism, I can find no peace. But it is perhaps the unanswered question - what is life worth - that can inspire us to seek ways of living our own lives that pay tribute to those who no longer have life, and to those who miss them.

Live Free or Die: Maybe Napster Should Call it Quits

I should preface these thoughts by saying that I believe the current uproar over Napster, copyright issues, the music industry, and information theory is producing a public debate that is very healthy for our government, culture, and nation. It is forcing us to look in new ways at how we treat information, data, privacy, personal transactions, art, and money on a personal and public level. It is forcing several large and powerful corporate and government entities to think hard about their place in the digital age.

007 4AThat being said, I think it might be best if the debate ended with the voluntary end of Napster, instead of the involuntary end of Napster "as we know it."

Outrageous, you say? They should fight to the death, you say? Well, let's think about it. When this whole conflict started, the Napster folks took the hard and fast position that they were providing a legitimate service that was not in any way defrauding the music industry. I'm not sure how their personal/internal corporate view has changed since then, but the current course of events would suggest that Napster is making every attempt to find the best way to handicap their service in a way that satisfies the music industry. This is the result of the seemingly immutable decision of the justice system that Napster's original operating model is illegal.

If you follow that course to its natural conclusion, it means that the current conflict will not end until either Napster operates in a manner that is pleasing to the music industry and/or the government, or Napster does not operate at all.

As a matter of pride and principle, I think Napster should head off either ending and call it a day. By continuing to participate in the current conflict, Napster publicly acknowledges, however reluctantly, that it is in the wrong and that the music industry and government are somehow in the right -- OR, it acknowledges that its more important to Napster's keepers to exist as a prisoner of these entities than it is to assert the right to exist freely or not exist at all.

However, if Napster were to close its proverbial doors, it would be its own unique way of admirably saying "we choose not to exist in a manner that is subject to the corrupt whims of a malicious industry". Yes, it would be a loss for Napster users, and yes, it would be a loss for a practical, working example of the power of the Internet. But it would NOT be a loss for the cause of freedom of information; quite the opposite.

Some things change our lives so significantly that they deserve better than to be trampled out of existence by the changing face of subtle bureaucratic oppression.

What do you think?

Review: Daniel Quinn's After Dachau

This analysis necessarily discusses some plot and thematic details of the book After Dachau by Daniel Quinn. I have made every attempt to refrain from revealing too much or spoiling the experience of reading the book for the first time, but picky readers be warned.

After reading just the first sentence of After Dachau, I was sure I had identified the major themes, direction, and message-delivering vehicle that Daniel Quinn would use in his new book. This was slightly comforting; I'd read that his latest work was radically different, obtuse, and unrelated to its predecessors. Given that his other books had significantly challenged the way I look at the world, and that I'd become (too) comfortable with that challenge, my initial reaction was my own attempt to tie everything together, to find central, comfortable ideas that I could hold onto, nod and agree with, and make my own.

But that, of course, is not the point. Quite the opposite, actually, and the book is anything but formulaic.
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